Roger Espinoza came to MLS - and Sporting KC - as a dark horse leftback prospect; he left the league an Olympics star and English Premier League central midfielder.
Roger Espinoza is just the latest poster-child for talented footballers with European aspirations entering Major League Soccer at a relatively young age. In a trend that is playing out before our eyes with increasing regularity, Espinoza seized the opportunity afforded him at the age of 21, and parlayed it into the journey of a lifetime - a chance to play the game at the world's highest level.
Honduran-born, and moved to the United States at the age of 12, Espinoza had a solid - if not stellar - college career at Ohio State University. Most supposed experts predicted not that Espinoza would find himself the second first-round selection of the then-Kansas City Wizards in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, certainly not allowing him the benefit of the doubt he'd develop into the player he has today.
Then again, maybe not even Espinoza himself would have dreamt he would one day find himself moving to Wigan Athletic of the English Premier League just a couple weeks shy of five years later, a transfer and lifelong dream that came to fruition this week. Given his rise from near obscurity as recent as two years ago, MLS - and Sporting KC specifically - should be hailed for honing his obvious potential and developing Espinoza into the player that could very well make his Premier League debut for the Latics this coming Saturday against Fulham.
While MLS is actively moving towards better-run youth academies popular the world over, and away from the traditional college-to-pro draft system so prevalent in other American sports, Espinoza, now a Honduran national team World Cup veteran, falls in line with other recent, mid-level draft successes that point to MLS' advancement in developing of young, talented players. While Clint Dempsey stands as the all-time gold standard for players embarking upon the college route, current United States national team starting centerback Geoff Cameron (42nd overall selection) and fringe national team defender Tim Ream (18th) have recently gone on to advance their careers in the top two divisions of English soccer after brief cameos in MLS.
Once thought of as a "Mickey Mouse league" for aging European and South American superstars looking for one last, sizable pay day, MLS front offices have conveyed their message loud and clear to its now-19 clubs that that approach should be disregarded in order to gain respectability and ensure long-term viability. This directive will ensure the league's years of efforts and advancement withstand the test of time and continue to raise its profile around the world while presenting itself an increasingly attractive option to young, aspiring players from all corners of the globe.
Two of Espinoza's Sporting KC pals - Matt Besler (8th overall selection) and Graham Zusi (23rd) - have similarly turned themselves into prospective options for European clubs across various countries. Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez (3rd), D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen (3rd) and Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson (51st) also look like good bets to jump abroad at some point in their still-young careers. Not only is this obviously good for today's on-field product, but a signal that many of league's clubs can turn raw youngsters, full of potential, into bona fied national team and European club players.
More so than anyone else in Sporting's history, Espinoza's rise to stardom distinctly coincided with the club's rebranding from the Wizards to Sporting KC as it stands today. He played his first three professional seasons in an independent league baseball stadium (soccer capacity: 10,385). After the club's complete change of identity in November 2011, the whole of Kansas City seemed to rally around the team, with everything coming to a complete head on June 9, 2011, the opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. Much like the club, Espinoza was a middling player his first three years, certainly good enough to warrant a spot on the team, but never grabbing much heralded acclaim.
It was the summer of 2011, from the opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park to that year's CONCACAF Gold Cup in which Espinoza represented his native Honduras, that all of that and Espinoza's life, changed forever.
Drafted as a left midfielder/left-sided defender, Espinoza enjoyed his first standout season in 2010 at the leftback position where he started 25 games for the Wizards and was widely regarded as one of the league's top performers at the position. It wasn't until six months later and a positional change during the summer of 2011 following a breakout performance for Honduras in the Gold Cup at central midfield, that Espinoza showed glimpses he would ever become anything more than good-to-great player in a league ranked towards the bottom of the world's top dozen or so leagues.
If anything illustrates his chances to become a good-to-great player in the Premier League, it's the seamlessness with which he made the transition to central midfield for Honduras in that tournament, followed up by doing so into head coach Peter Vermes' fast-pace, high-pressure 4-3-3 system where everyone being in the right place on the field at the right time, moving and shifting as a unit is directly correlated with the team's success. Not bad for a new-born central midfielder on a team that finished first place in the Eastern Conference two years running.
Espinoza, a tenacious ball-winner that covers just about every blade of grass from one endline to the other over the course of 90 minutes, finally had a role within Vermes' team that allowed him to flourish and play with true freedom and enthusiasm that soon became his calling card. He was a player that you loved with every ounce of your being if he was wearing your team's shirt, but loathed to oppose and constantly have to account for from the first whistle to the very last. That spirit was firmly on display the evening Espinoza received a full-stadium, standing ovation from a mostly neutral crowd after being sent off against Brazil in the 2012 London Olympics quarterfinals match, for what was quickly dubbed a star performance.
At that point, Sporting were always facing a serious uphill battle to retain his services once his existing contract ended at the conclusion of the 2012 calendar year. Clubs from around Europe had taken notice and had similar thoughts - "we could surely do with a player like that."
Ultimately, Espinoza receives much of the credit for his meteoric rise to prominence and the grand opportunity he's earned to ply his trade against some of the world's best. But he's also a testament to Vermes and the rest of the Sporting coach staff, past and present. Espinoza's early career is a tale that, if frequently enough replicated, will one day see MLS reach the heights which itself thinks capable.
Despite what FIFA president Sepp Blatter may say or truly believe in his heart, this is a process that happens not over night, but over a span of many years until the right people are in enough of the right places, working towards the same objective, and doing so in the correct manner. Luckily enough, Vermes and Co. favored this strategy a handful of years before it seemed a worthy cause to some other MLS clubs, many of which are still struggling to grasp the notion.