The photographs were blurry, absent of color and worn along the edges, but they were the only images Roger Espinoza had of his father. They owned a prominent resting spot inside his family home in Puerto Cortes, Honduras.
It was 1987 when Espinoza’s dad left Honduras and traveled alone to the United States. Anibal Espinoza left behind his wife and children, hoping to find a better life for them.
Roger Espinoza, a midfielder with Sporting Kansas City, had recently turned 1 year old. The first memorable encounter with his dad wouldn’t come for another decade, inside a Denver airport.
“I saw him for the first time, and I was like, ‘Wait, what? This is not the same dude,’ ” Espinoza said. “He looked so much different than those pictures I had seen. I didn’t even recognize him.”
A violent culture rooted in cocaine trafficking engulfed San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which in 2015 was labeled the murder capital of the world. The city sits only 35 miles south of Espinoza’s hometown.
The desire for a fresh start in the land of opportunity intrigued Anibal, so he moved to California and found a job as a cabinetmaker.
After three years, he returned to Honduras to visit his family, but he decided the vacation was too expensive to repeat, and he feared the consequences of missing work. Thus, Roger grew up away from his father, their only communication coming via telephone every couple of weeks.
“You see other kids in your neighborhood with these great relationships with their dad, and you want that,” Espinoza said. “But the perspective of the United States in Honduras is an easier life. When you’re a kid, you just dream about that.
“You just hope it’s not a dream.”
The wait was long. Anibal lived in the United States for four years before becoming a resident.
While it required another three-year period before his family was eligible to join him, Anibal couldn’t yet afford to finance the move. He volunteered for overtime hours at his job near Los Angeles. Nights. Weekends.
When he heard of an opportunity for more regular work in Denver, he made the trek to the mountains and cycled between multiple jobs.
Finally, in April 1998, he called home and instructed his family to purchase plane tickets to Colorado.
“I was always working and saving (money). In this moment, I could be with them, and that was always my priority,” Anibal said through a translator.
On grass and dirt soccer fields in Honduras, Roger Espinoza adopted the physical, competitive style that has made him a fan favorite in Kansas City. He developed a reputation as one of the best players in his neighborhood. In phone conversations, his older brother, Herson, relayed to Anibal that locals were describing Roger as a future star.
Anibal had never seen his youngest son play.
“It was very difficult for me not to know my family,” Anibal said. “It was a very long time without my family.”
He also relied on pictures for reminders, though the ones of his growing children quickly became outdated. He describes the relocation as worth the time apart from his wife and children, and Espinoza’s success on the soccer field in this country has only further validated the decision.
The latter helped pay for a college education at Ohio State, before Espinoza embarked on a professional career. That has included stops with Sporting KC and Wigan in the English Premier League, and he represented Honduras in the 2014 World Cup. He is the highest-paid player on the Sporting KC roster.
“This is the best thing that could have happened for us,” Anibal said.
After years of never watching his son play soccer, Anibal identifies every break in his work schedule as an opportunity. He has traveled to Children’s Mercy Park for three Sporting KC games this season.
Espinoza often signals to him in the stands.
“He’s made this life possible for me,” Espinoza said. “He’s a guy who would do anything for me. He’s always been a guy who loves to work and take care of his family. In the end, he did that.”