Roger Espinoza boarded the Wigan Athletic team bus on Dec. 7, 2013, opened a small laptop computer and flipped on the MLS Cup Final. From more than 4,000 miles across the globe, he watched his former club, Sporting Kansas City, hoist the championship trophy.
An epiphany, of sorts, followed.
“My heart was still in Kansas City,” he said. “That’s when I knew.”
Nearly 13 months later, the reunion is official.
Sporting Kansas City announced Tuesday that it has signed Espinoza to a multiyear contract, rekindling a relationship that began in 2008, when the club drafted him 11th overall in the MLS SuperDraft.
Espinoza, 28, will join the team for its preseason camp in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 23.
“The way that he plays — the aggressiveness, his mentality, his never-give-up attitude on the field, all of it — is a big piece of who we are,” coach Peter Vermes said. “It’s a big reason why we have (53) sellouts in a row. He was a major component to that style of play.”
The initial stay in Kansas City lasted five years — and included 113 appearances in MLS play — before Espinoza departed for Wigan after the 2012 season. He wanted to fulfill a dream of playing in the English Premier League.
The latest stay could last the remainder of his soccer career, he said during a news conference Tuesday. On a number of occasions, the Honduran midfielder referred to Kansas City simply as “home.”
He arrived here Monday evening and promptly hit up some of his old favorites stops, including a coffee shop he used to frequent.
“I felt like I was back where I belong,” he said.
Espinoza came to that decision last summer, and Sporting KC worked to enact the transfer immediately, but Wigan refused to release him from his contract. A managerial change for the English club provided an alteration to that stance when the international transfer window opened on New Year’s Day.
It’s a day Espinoza said he always envisioned. In fact, when he departed Sporting KC in 2012, he informed Vermes and the team’s ownership group that it likely wouldn’t be a permanent stay in England.
As a result, Vermes remained in constant contact with his former midfielder — and the frequency of that contact heightened after Wigan was relegated to the Football League Championship following an uninspired 2012-13 season.
Vermes’ phone rang one final time in July.
“Listen, I’m ready,” Espinoza recalled telling Vermes.
“I was a little taken back,” Vermes said. “The (transfer) window was closing, and it was abrupt. We had joked around about it, but it was never really that serious.
“(But) when he said in the summertime he wanted to come back, I knew I needed to take advantage of it.”
The long, black strands of hair that made Espinoza a visual icon among soccer fans in Kansas City have been trimmed and replaced by a mohawk that runs along the center of his head.
He ensures he will return to Kansas City as a different player — and the new haircut is reflective of that belief. He considers himself a more mature, well-rounded player with better leadership qualities after his experiences overseas, which included an FA Cup victory with Wigan.
“A lot has changed,” said Espinoza, who will wear No. 27. “I think I can pick up where I left off, but I think I’m on an advanced level (from where) I was. I played against great players in the Premier League, and that gives you that experience. I learned to make tough decisions, quick decisions right away.”
He will join a suddenly crowded midfield with Sporting Kansas City that already features veterans Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura.
Espinoza was an MLS All-Star in his final season with Sporting KC, and he helped the team capture the U.S. Open Cup that summer. He had two goals and 12 assists across all competitions in five seasons.
His homecoming offers Sporting KC its latest addition to an increasingly stable core. Graham Zusi and Matt Besler signed designated-player contracts that will keep them in Kansas City through the 2018 season. Dom Dwyer signed an extension last month that locks him into a deal for at least three more seasons.
“We talk a lot about accommodating players’ aspirations when those take them overseas. And when their aspirations bring them home, I think that’s a really important step for us as a destination in Major League Soccer,” Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman said. “I think this gives us that core we were looking for, which is going to be very important to whether or not we get back to the MLS Cup. And that’s obviously our goal.”