In one sense, midfielder Roger Espinoza’s career is as entwined with Sporting KC as much as any current player.
In 2008, the club then known as the Wizards picked him 11th overall in the MLS SuperDraft and nurtured him into its nucleus.
That coincided with the franchise’s metamorphosis in identity, home and purpose that funneled into winning the 2013 MLS Cup.
But for all Espinoza contributed to the foundation of that triumph, he could only gaze on from afar at the pinnacle:
After his MLS All-Star 2012 season, he was realizing his dream of playing in the English Premiere League, sandwiched between representing his native Honduras in the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 World Cup.
Never mind that the streaming connection was sporadic as he watched Sporting in the 2013 MLS title game from his laptop on the Wigan Athletic bus late that night, Wigan teammates gathering around as he urged on Sporting over the miles many with whom he’d come of age … and with whom his heart remained.
“It wasn’t the best reception,” he said, “but it was great.”
That scene isn’t mere nostalgia, though.
This is a void that leaves Espinoza yearning for something many of his teammates in his second life with Sporting KC have checked off after they had, as he put it, “come close all those years” in his first incarnation with Sporting.
The missing piece in him fills in an essential one for the club to which he feels he most belongs — something coach Peter Vermes sensed when he brought Espinoza back in 2015 and cited his “never-give-up attitude” three years after he’d left spoke of him as a “big piece of who we are.”
It’s part of a drive that helps account for why Espinoza, 29, was entrusted with the captaincy of the team after Matt Besler left for a stint with the U.S. team — and why he hasn’t relinquished it since.
More than one player has to influence the team, Vermes is careful to note, mentioning Besler and Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber in the same breath among those who take that seriously.
But what Espinoza missed out on while fulfilling other aspirations seems to be fueling something Vermes considers pivotal toward how Sporting’s season will be defined — starting with whether it can secure a playoff spot today by winning the regular-season finale against San Jose, the most controllable of several scenarios that would extend their postseason streak to a club-record six years.
“We hold our own destiny,” Espinoza said. “Which is good.”
While not suggesting anyone has become complacent, Vermes became animated at the notion the gap in Espinoza’s timeline with the club further stokes an intensity that appeared unquenchable to begin with.
“Hunger in an athlete is paramount, and he for sure has that; I think he demonstrates that …,” Vermes said. “When he’s out there, he brings more than just good play. He’s got an engine. As the game goes on, he gets stronger …
“He’s a man, and he’s been around.”
As Vermes recalled Espinoza’s maturation and growing sense of responsibility before leaving, his words perhaps were instructive to the mind-set Espinoza has carried since returning to Sporting last year.
“It’s different when you’re kind of chasing, you’re trying to get to a place,” Vermes said. “A lot of other things that could be distractions wind up not being (distractions) because you’re so focused on getting to that place you want to be that you can almost shut things out.
“It’s pretty simple. Because you’re so focused on that one goal.”
That was intensified for Espinoza after a broken foot forced him to miss the 2015 knockout-round loss to Portland, which featured an absurd 11-round penalty kick that forever will be remembered for Sporting’s Saad Abdul-Salaam hitting both posts without crossing the line when it would have won the game in the ninth round.
“Last season was a very sad moment for me,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza vividly remembers watching at home, hating to do that to begin with and yelling at the TV and referees so much that his English bulldog, Chulo, raised his ears and stared at him as if to say, “What’s going on?”
“When it’s not for you, it’s not for you sometimes,” he said. “And this was definitely a game that it wasn’t for us.”
For at least a chunk of this campaign, it looked like this entire season wasn’t for Sporting — never more notably than during a seven-game winless streak.
If there was no negativity or blaming during that time, as Espinoza said, at least a part of that was because of how he embraced a stabilizing role of being what Vermes called “a true mentor to a lot of the young guys.”
“He values bringing those guys along,” he said.
In part because he’d been brought along the same way here.
“A lot of the older guys, they know … what it takes to win; a lot of the younger guys don’t, and if you want to win you’ve got to get them on the same page,” said Espinoza, who is Sporting’s highest-paid player at $800,000 this season. “When guys come in, it’s our job to help them. …
“When I was younger, there were a lot of guys here who helped me. Now it’s my turn to do that with a lot of guys.”
All the more so because of what he gained — and missed — in between stints with Sporting, which he believes has created a legacy of coming through at tough moments.
“I don’t think anybody’s thinking about going home early,” he said. “Especially me.”