It’s a shame that Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza isn’t an MLS All-Star, but he’s about to find himself on a much bigger stage anyway.
It’s still possible Espinoza will earn all-star distinction from his peers when the results of player voting is announced July 25 during the AT&T MLS All-Star Game, an exhibition against reigning UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea FC at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
But Espinoza, who might miss as much as a month playing for Honduras at the Olympics, arguably deserves the honor now even though he hasn’t racked up huge totals for goals (zero) or assists (two), which almost certainly explains why he was glossed over in fan voting to determine the First XI.
Perhaps no player better embodies the physical, high-pressure style Sporting KC has used to ascend to the Eastern Conference apex the last two seasons better than Espinoza — whose nonstop on-field persona revs the engine for manager Peter Vermes’ club.
To be clear, that’s no knock on Sporting KC’s three all-stars: goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen, fellow midfielder Graham Zusi and whirling dervish defender Aurelien Collin.
Each are worthy all-star selections in their own right, but Espinoza is every bit as critical, if not more so, to Sporting KC’s success.
Sporting KC, 11-5-3, and its fans are about to find out how much Espinoza means to the club. He left Sunday to join the Honduras men’s under-23 national team as one of its three over-age players for the Summer Games in London later this month.
“Roger has a great energy level within the team,” Vermes said. “He’s a great ball winner and he gets stronger as the game goes on. He has a great connection in the middle with Zusi and (Paulo) Nagamura right now, but these are the things that go on with teams. You just have to be ready.”
From that standpoint, it’s no great slight to that D.C. United coach Ben Olsen didn’t select Espinoza, who wouldn’t be available anyway, among the seven at-large picks to round out the MLS game-day roster against Chelsea.
Besides, there is no greater honor than representing one’s nation in the Olympics — except perhaps doing so in the FIFA World Cup, a goal Espinoza checked off the bucket list two years ago in South Africa.
“I’m very excited,” Espinoza said. “Obviously, I didn’t know if I would be called up. There are a lot of very good older players in Honduras, so I didn’t know if I would get this chance. Having a coach take me is very special to me and I’m very excited.”
Espinoza might be playing the best soccer of his career right now and, with a strong and talented corps of young players around him, Honduras is a dark horse to reach the medal round.
“People in Honduras would go crazy (if we win a medal),” Espinoza said. “You could see when we qualified to the World Cup how much it meant to the people there. To get a medal in the Olympics would be something amazing. It would go down in history.”
Unlike his World Cup experience, Espinoza will be counted on as a leader during the Olympics, but he is confident and eager to embrace the role of veteran leader.
“Obviously, for the World Cup, I was one of the younger guys and I looked up to the older guys,” Espinoza said. “It was a process to learn from the older guys, but the older guys were very supportive. They didn’t yell at me if I made a bad pass or something. That’s the same approach I am going to take.”
While Espinoza will be missed, Vermes, who played for the U.S. at the 1988 Olympics, wished him well but had precious little advice.
“He went to the World Cup, which is the biggest stage for soccer, so I don’t think I have to tell him anything,” Vermes said. “Just like World Cup, though, things fly by really quickly. So if I did have any advice, it would be to take it all in, slow down and enjoy it.”
Unfortunately, as Sporting KC fans know all too well, slowing down has never been Espinoza’s strong suit.