The Full 90

Midfielder Espinoza’s passion is no longer a liability to Sporting KC

It’s a moment that still seems surreal.

Roger Espinoza was sent off the pitch after receiving his second yellow card at St. James Park in Newcastle, England, during the closing minutes of a men’s soccer quarterfinal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Then the crowd — mostly locals with no allegiance to either Espinoza’s Honduras squad or Brazil — rose in unison to salute Espinoza, the Sporting Kansas City midfielder who had fulfilled a lifelong dream suiting up for his country at the Summer Games.

“At one point, I thought they were celebrating that I got the red card, but then I clapped my hands over my head again and I saw the crowd go even crazier,” said Espinoza, 25. “They knew I was acknowledging their clap, and all the sudden it hit me that I was getting a standing ovation at the Olympics.”

Espinoza had set up Honduras’ first goal and also scored during a 3-2 loss, but what fans really responded to was his devil-may-care style.

Sporting KC fans have grown accustomed to Espinoza’s frenetic, kinetic play — an end-to-end and sideline-to-sideline assault game after game.

Turns out, fans from the birthplace of soccer also appreciated watching Espinoza playing as if his hair — a trademark thatch of flowing jet-black locks — was on fire.

Of course, Espinoza wasn’t always the fan favorite he’s become in Kansas City.

As a rookie with the then-Wizards during the 2008 season, Espinoza was dubbed “Roger the Red” as his feisty style tended to draw the ire of Major League Soccer referees.

That first season, Espinoza was pegged as reckless — a reputation he earned for picking up two ejections in his first six appearances — and the nickname endured even as he played the next 71 games, including the entire 2009 and 2010 seasons, without picking up another red card.

“I’m a very intense guy and I want to win games,” said Espinoza, who has four ejections in 107 career MLS games. “I’m going to get cards, because I play hard and always try to win the ball. The way I look at it, the majority of times, you’re going to win games if you outwork the other team, so I don’t mind if I have to take a couple cards on occasion for that. Of course, I’ve tried really hard this year not to get too many.”

The ejections have dipped as Espinoza’s soccer IQ continues to climb, and the only part he ever minded about being called “Roger the Red” was the implication that he was a dirty player.

“There was a tackle a few years ago on (Real Salt Lake’s Kyle) Beckerman that looked pretty bad, but I would never try to hurt someone,” Espinoza said. “He’s one of the best midfielders in the league. I came in hard trying to win a ball, he saw me coming and turned me, so it looked bad. But that’s just the way I play.”

Now, of course, Espinoza is beloved for many of the same reasons and has become a driving force in coach Peter Vermes’ high-pressure, in-your-face system, which netted an Eastern Conference championship a year ago and has Sporting KC back in first place again.

“Roger is one of those guys who fights to the death for his team,” said Sporting KC right back Chance Myers, who arrived in Kansas City from the same draft and was Espinoza’s roommate on the road as a rookie. “He’s a pit bull in there. He has such a willingness to win. His tenacity is infectious. When everybody else is getting tired and you see him bust his butt to run a guy down from 80 yards behind him, everybody is going to follow suit.”

Growing up in Puerto Cortes, Honduras, all Roger Espinoza ever wanted to be was a professional soccer player.

Of course, in Honduras, soccer is more like religion.

“When you’re a little kid in Honduras, you look up to professional soccer players and want to be the best you can be,” Espinoza said. “I had a lot of idols growing up with my hometown team.”

But it’s Espinoza’s father, Anibal, and mother, Mercedes, who deserve credit for instilling his work ethic.

Anibal came to the United States seeking a better life around the time Roger was born.

The family was separated until 1998, with Mercedes raising Roger and his four siblings alone in Honduras, before the family received green cards and joined Anibal in Denver.

Once in the States, soccer became a saving grace for Espinoza, who became a naturalized citizen in 2008.

“It was tough at first trying to adjust to the language, but after I was able to join a soccer team in Colorado, I was fine,” Espinoza said. “I didn’t care about the language. I just cared about playing, and I was able to learn English with my club team.”

From there, he fought through the ranks, beginning at Yavapai Junior College and Ohio State, where he’d blossom into a Generation Adidas player and help the Buckeyes reach the NCAA championship game.

“It usually happens too late in a player’s career, but you finally at some point figure out what your strengths are and really start playing to them,” Vermes said. “Roger has found out at a younger age what his strengths are, and he is playing to them.”

During the Olympics, Espinoza’s constant midfield harassment grabbed considerable attention and generated buzz about transfer possibilities.

Teams from the top leagues in the world — the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A — reportedly were interested in Espinoza.

Sporting KC’s fans panicked momentarily, gripped with hysteria that Espinoza could be on the verge of a ticket out of town.

“It makes me happy to know that people are happy to have me here and want me to stay here,” Espinoza said. “I know that wasn’t the case for everybody my rookie year, but I try to do my best in every game. I might not always be having the best game, but I will always try very hard in every game. That’s something I think I have that not every player has and I think the fans respect that.”

Like most professional soccer players, Espinoza wouldn’t turn down a chance to play in one of the elite European leagues, but “Kansas City is where I’m at right now and I’m happy to be here,” he said.

It’s where he developed as a player, honing that intense work rate and learning to pay more attention to the game’s details and nuances.

“Everything I am now is probably because of Kansas City, because it’s the only place I’ve played as a pro,” Espinoza said. “I’m committed to this team, and I haven’t sat down with any other team. When the time comes, I’ll definitely sit down and listen to what Kansas City has to say.”

Right now, though, Espinoza’s sole focus is on winning the MLS Supporter’s Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record, and eventually hoisting the MLS Cup.

Still, his most rewarding moment as a soccer player came Aug. 8 at Livestrong Sporting Park.

“Honestly, winning the U.S. Open Cup was probably the highlight of my career just because I finally won a trophy,” Espinoza said. “Winning a championship was amazing, and it’s something nobody can ever take away. That’s the highlight of my career, but I hope it’s not the last one.”