In one of the rare times he didn't suit up for Sporting Kansas City in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup encounter, Roger Espinoza admits he was one Nervous Nellie.
There he was, in his street clothes, sitting in the Children's Mercy Park stands and watching his teammates take on FC Dallas in a thrilling Fourth Round game on May 10.
Kansas City managed a 4-2 win in extra-time, but that didn't calm the 35-year-old midfielder's anxiety. After spotting the visitors a two-goal lead, KC equalized on a Marinos Tzionis' header eight minutes deep in stoppage time. An own goal and a Khiry Shelton tally settled matters in the extra 30.
The 35-year-old Espinoza felt totally helpless as a spectator in an elimination match.
No Fun in the Stands
"It was very different to watch from the stands because you want to be out there," said the midfielder – a born competitor. "You get more nervous. My anxiety was 100 percent. I'd much rather be in the game and be able to control that in an elimination game. It's very tough."
That's because Espinoza has proven to be a gamer throughout his 15-year career, someone who’s earned four major domestic cup medals. That includes three Open Cup titles (2012, 2015 and 2017) with KC and a fourth with Wigan Athletic, the 2013 English F.A. Cup winners.
Espinoza would love to add a fifth, though Sporting need to take care of business against USL League One (third division) upstarts Union Omaha in a Quarterfinal at home in Kansas City on Wednesday, June 22 at 8:30 p.m. ET (Live on ESPN+).
"It [the Cup] means a lot. It's another chance to win a championship, something to fight for," the Honduran international said. "Especially in Kansas City where every game you play is valued the same way. Those are the expectations. You keep winning games; you can get farther into competitions."
Keep it Simple in the Cup
His philosophy for Cup games isn’t complicated.
"We view every game the same way," Espinoza insisted. "Win or go home. Winning is the only option. It's pretty much a final every game. It's so intense. It's an amazing feeling being in [direct] elimination games, something that I really always look forward to."
Entering MLS league action on the weekend of June 18, Sporting were in last place in the Western Conference standings with a 3-9-4 mark and just 13 points to show for their efforts. So, reaching the Final or winning the Open Cup could help turn the tide in league play in a much-needed way.
"These Open Cup games have been played with a lot of young guys who have gotten a lot of minutes,” Espinoza said. “These guys get confidence winning these games. We are at a moment in our season where we understand exactly what is needed from each other and to start contending in the league."
Espinoza has a never-say-die attitude and it’s one of the reasons why the 5-11, 161-lb. midfielder has picked up 70 yellow cards and 12 reds during his MLS career. That desire was never more apparent than in Honduras' 3-2 quarterfinal loss to Brazil at the Summer Olympics in Newcastle in August of 2012.
He played his heart out, scoring one goal and setting up another. After he received a second yellow in the 90th minute, he walked off the field to a standing ovation at St. James' Park. Even the Brazilians and their coach Mano Menezes applauded the midfielder’s epic effort.
The Game of his Life
"The way the game was played, credit to my teammates," he said, happy to deflect attention. "We showed up as an underdog. Our main role was just to prove and show the world the determination of the Honduran people. My main goal in this game, and throughout the tournament, was to show everything I got. I took everything in the moment and lived in the moment."
Fans might not realize this, but four days later (and eight time zones to the west in Seattle), Espinoza started KC's Open Cup Final win over the Seattle Sounders. The visitors prevailed in a shootout after playing out a 1-1 draw.
"I was lucky enough to play that Final," Espinoza said. "I had to forget about that [Olympic] game within 48 hours. And I was rewarded with a championship with all the guys in Kansas City."
Espinoza's performance at the Olympics, particularly in the quarterfinals, helped him land a contract with Wigan Athletic for the 2013-14 English Premier League season. As a converted left-back, he was a member of the squad that captured the 2013 F.A. Cup crown.
"It was very special," he remembered of that campaign. "This is pretty similar to what happened here in 2012 in Kansas City. If you look at both teams, expectations were the same. It's a small-town market. That experience was something that I'll always cherish. I'm a very lucky guy just to go from Kansas City winning in 2012 and, about six months later, going to Wigan and winning the F.A. Cup. It’s amazing."
Wigan were relegated that season and Espinoza returned to KC for the 2015 MLS campaign.
Sporting head coach and technical director Peter Vermes, who was happy to have his man back, always knew he had a special player in his foraging midfielder.
"I think the best compliment that I can say is...if I was ever going to be going to a club and starting from scratch, and I had a player to take with me, it would be Roger," said Vermes, a 66-times capped defender with the U.S. Men’s National Team. “He's going to fight for everything.”
Spotted in College
Espinoza caught Vermes' eye at the 2007 NCAA Division I College Cup in Cary, North Carolina while starring for Ohio State. He scored the Buckeyes' lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Wake Forest in the final. After watching Espinoza in the semifinal for a half-hour, Vermes realized he’d be a great fit for SKC.
A month later, he got his man as Sporting selected Espinoza as the 11th overall pick in the draft.
"He obviously had a soccer quality, but he had that drive,” Vermes said. “That person that wants to compete, and it's not going to be denied. That’s been the foundation of all of his success over the years."
Vermes also learned about Espinoza's character.
In 2009 SKC received an inquiry from the Honduran National Team about Espinoza's availability. Vermes immediately called U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bob Bradley. Espinoza, who has dual citizenship, was born in Puerto Cortes, Honduras but emigrated to the States with his family and settled in Denver when he was 12.
"Before I even finished telling him I called Bradley, Roger said, 'I really appreciate that. But I was born in Honduras, and I think it's the right thing for me to play for my country of birth,'" Vermes remembered.
A Man of His Word
"It didn't even take him 30 seconds to think about it,” Vermes added. “He was definitive. I give him a lot of credit for that. He was committed to something. That's who he is. Those little things are the big things about him."
Those little-big things are on display all over the Sporting clubhouse.
"There's usually a large contingent of Latino players in the team," Vermes said. "It's a Spanish-speaking group. And you have your English-speaking group. What Roger is able to do is fit in with either group. Let's say it’s lunch and it's a bunch of Spanish-speaking guys sitting there and just one American guy at the table, Roger would go to the American guy and sit and talk with him because he doesn't want him to feel out of place. And vice versa. He does it out of pure instinct. He’s really a great person."
Not surprisingly, he’s has grown into a voice of wisdom – a guide for the younger generation.
Cam Duke, a 21-year-old midfielder at the club, appreciates Espinoza’s experience and advice.
"He's had a big influence on me and the team," said Duke. "He's a really good leader. He's been helping me with things that I need to do better. He tells me the things I'm good at, like keep using my strengths. He's definitely had a big influence on my development as a player."
Except for the lone season with Wigan, Espinoza has played his entire career with Sporting. He’s logged many miles – 23,238 minutes over 301 MLS regular season games since 2008, scoring 11 goals and assisting on 40.
SKC’s Grand Old man
"I'm very happy that [just about] my entire career has been in Kansas City," he admitted. "It's proven how hard I worked. Mentoring the younger guys…it's me trying to keep the culture and help the young guys continue that culture. You're not always going to win the championship, but you always got to go out there and give everything. It's representing the club in a good manner on and off the field."
At the age of 35, when many players have called time, retiring thoughts are hardly on Espinoza's mind.
"In the last probably two or three years I feel great," he said. "I'm going to go until I can't. Right now, I don't really feel that need to retire…I feel great. I have a contract and I'm competing. I'm getting minutes. I'm still the same as when I was younger, getting in the car and going to practice.
"I'm not going to run the same as when I was in my 20s or my early 30s. But I have a lot of experience. I can compete on the field,” added Sporting KC’s wise old head. “I can position myself, make the plays I need to help my team. I'm very happy for what I've accomplished. If you told me 15 years ago, I was going to be exactly right here, I would say you're just lying and a lunatic."
Michael Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Soccerwriter on Twitter. His book (ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers) is available for purchase.