- READ: The Great Eight (Quarterfinals): Captains, Collisions & Cloudbursts
- READ: SKC Knock Out Holders FC Dallas for Place in Semis (STORY & HIGHLIGHTS)
- VIDEO: FC Cincinnati Edge Miami FC to Reach #USOC2017 Semis (HIGHLIGHTS)
“I was really scared,” SKC’s veteran leader Espinoza told ussoccer.com after his teammate Ike Opara was kicked in the face and knocked out cold in last month’s Quarterfinal against defending Cup holders FC Dallas. He was standing in as captain for Matt Besler, away on Gold Cup duty with the U.S. National Team, and had his work cut out on a tougher night than most at the office. “I’ve seen a lot of things, but I never saw that before and I was right near him when it happened.”
Medical staff rushed the field. The Kansas City crowd fell silent. It was suddenly one of those moments when there’s more at stake than a soccer game. Espinoza, a 30-year-old midfielder who’s seen a lot in this game, was afraid for his friend. “You don’t know what’s going on. We’re waiting for Ike to come out of his seizure. It looks like he’s not breathing. He’s just lying there and shaking, and that’s your teammate,” said Espinoza, remembering a moment both painful and terrifying. “That’s your friend down there. His eyes are closed and his jaw is locked up tight. It was one of the toughest moments I’ve ever had as a player, watching him go off to the hospital on a stretcher and we don’t know if he’s coming back…”
From Darkness to Light
Everyone in Sporting Kansas City sky-blue felt that same thing at that same moment. And they all turned to their captain looking for something in his eyes. “You have to look the players in the eye and make sure they’re ready to go,” said Espinoza, born in Honduras but raised in Colorado and crucial to Sporting Kansas City’s surging season where they lead MLS’s Western Conference and are on course for a potential League/Cup double. “I just started saying come on – let’s go. let’s do it for Ike and for Neal (Patterson, the owner had died two days before and the game offered an opportunity to pay tribute to him and his devotion to SKC). Let’s do it for Seth…”
That Seth was Seth Sinovic, who was sent off after only 15 minutes for a poor challenge near midfield. It was a huge mistake, foolish by any measure, and the perfect excuse for the home side to throw in the towel. 75 minutes (at least) to go and you’ll have to do it playing a man down – there’s your excuse and your scapegoat’s walking down the tunnel for an early shower with his head in his hands. But that’s not the way in Kansas City and that’s not the way for the club’s foraging captain on that day. Espinoza spent every second up to the final whistle (which came after 30 additional minutes of extra-time) battling, doing the work of two men in midfield to fill a gap, leading by example and keeping the score level.
“It’s not easy going a man down. Especially early in a game like that. You see it all the time in soccer and it looks like a normal thing, but it’s tough,” said Espinoza, who speaks slowly and takes long pauses to consider his answers. No holds barred on the field, he’s unusually thoughtful in street shoes. “It was a hot night and emotions were high with the tribute for Neal before the game, so what we managed to do says a lot about our team. You have to take all of your feelings and emotions and use them to fight and play and make sure you don’t come up short.”
For the 86 minutes Kansas City played a man down, the game was ugly. It was all-hands-on-deck. Another Open Cup epic in a wild tournament that outdoes itself year after year, but a stormy night all the same. Studs flashed and tackles came without disclaimers. It was all-or-nothing soccer. That midfield was no place for the timid. “I like it when things go like that,” admitted Espinoza, who spent five years at SKC before chasing a dream and moving to the English Premier League with Wigan Athletic. He won an FA Cup there in 2013, but when he watched SKC win MLS Cup on a bad laptop stream riding a bus over an English highway that same year he ached for the place he considered home. “I’ve played enough games to know anything can happen and a lot of games can come down to who fights hardest.”
The game was on the edge. It was physical and always threatened to boil over from competitive to chaos. “This is a Cup and you win or you go out,” said Espinoza, who’s been capped 46 times for Honduras, playing in two World Cups. “You don’t want to hurt anyone, but you’re on the edge because it can be your last game. You can’t give any opponent any room to breathe. Every bounce of the ball counts. It can get pretty rough; your emotions are there in a different way.”
The Man Behind the Men in the Headlines
Espinoza’s fighting spirit on the day was contagious. He was a beacon to his team and it’s clear why Peter Vermes never hesitates to hand him the armband when it’s all on the line. “His aggressiveness, his never-give-up attitude, is a big piece of who we are,” said the coach and former U.S. National Team stalwart.
Dallas’ Maxi Urruti was red-carded for his kick (accidental though it was) to Opara’s head in the 101st minute. There and then, eleven minutes into extra-time, the sides were level. It was ten on ten and in the balance again. Still 0-0. The captain looked his teammates in the eyes and coaxed that little bit more from tired and weary men. His graft had made enough space and time for the rest to go on and get the game. Benny Feilhaber came off the bench to wriggle and tease. He forced FC Dallas into another red-card, this time for Javier Morales, and set up two goals in an eventual 3-0 win. Latif Blessing, barely through his teens and still finding his way, scored twice.
Espinoza didn’t rest until the job was done. That’s his way. But he did step aside and let his teammates have the headlines. Captains don’t need those. They’ve got other things on their mind. “San Jose (Earthquakes) will be tough. We’ve played them twice already and playing a team a third time is always tricky,” he said of the Semifinal game, again at home, on Wednesday, Aug. 9. If they win, Kansas City host the Open Cup Final against either New York Red Bulls or second-division Cincderellas FC Cincinnati. “The road’s open to us,” said Espinoza, guiding the ship with a hand so steady that its force is hard to detect. “It’s a good road to be on. A chance to play a Final at home, that’s a blessing. I want it.”