Espinoza carving out a central role for Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Roger Espinoza usually isn’t the most skilled player on the field. He’s probably not the biggest, strongest or fastest, either.

But Espinoza just might be the most committed. And anything he lacks in other areas, he makes up for with a competitive streak and dogged approach that makes playing with him a joy and against him somewhere between frustrating and absolutely maddening.

Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes doesn’t mince words when it comes to the player he recently converted from left back to a box-to-box terror in central midfield. Espinoza has proven to be absolutely relentless between the lines.

“He’s hard,” Vermes said. “He’s an animal.”

That’s high praise coming from Vermes, and one of the major reasons why Espinoza has managed to cement himself in Sporting’s starting midfield rotation since he returned from the Gold Cup in late June.

And despite his physical reputation, the truth is Espinoza is no slouch on the ball, either. Still, he knows his role and has taken to it seamlessly, helping Sporting keep their 13-game unbeaten streak intact with seven straight starts while providing cover and an outlet for his more attack-minded teammates. The next test is Wednesday at home against Real Salt Lake (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).

“I try to do the dirty jobs,” Espinoza said, “and clean it up for them.”

According to Vermes, Espinoza is doing that as well as just about anyone else in Major League Soccer at the moment, even at a fairly unfamiliar position.

Espinoza played left back for most of his professional career in Kansas City, experience that allowed him to forge a defensive skill set to complement his rasping left-footed shot and tireless work ethic. But he has played mostly in the midfield — predominantly on the left side — for Honduras and impressed as one of three central midfielders against Mexico in the Gold Cup semifinals.

With Davy Arnaud and Craig Rocastle both injured when Espinoza returned from international duty, he slotted straight into a similar role in Kansas City. Since then, Vermes said Espinoza has put up eye-popping numbers as a ball-hawking midfielder.

“The number of tackles he has in the midfield is unbelievable, unreal,” Vermes said. “From our stats, he is top of the league. His winning the ball back in the midfield has been excellent. He’s just never-ending with his energy.”

According to Espinoza, it’s been that way ever since he was a little boy. When his team doesn’t have the ball, all he can think about is finding a way to get it back.

Sometimes that can lead to ill-advised tackles — Espinoza earned the moniker "Red Card Roger" in some online circles after picking up two dismissals as a rookie — but part of what makes him so effective is his willingness to put a foot in when others might hesitate.

“I’m going to go into every play like I want to win the ball,” Espinoza said. “If I don’t win it, I know Júlio [César] is right behind me or [Matt] Besler or whoever. Playing midfield kind of allows you to make some mistakes. I think that’s why things are going well. I’m not thinking about making a mistake or being scared to do that. I just go for it.”

And, unlike some, he has the motor and stamina to do that for 90 minutes game in and game out, something that is certainly appreciated by the players he helps protect from untracked runs out of the midfield. 

“You’re so happy that he’s on your team just because he’s a guy that’s so hard to go against,” Besler said. “He’s very reliable. I very rarely have to tell him to make a run back. He’s already making it. We look at the charts after each game of how much guys run. He’s always in the top three.” 

Vermes sees that as well, which is why he will be faced with quite a decision once he has all his options at his disposal. Though his versatility is an asset, it also means Espinoza can’t get truly comfortable in one position, even if he is performing at a high level.

For the time being, though, he isn’t going anywhere.

“I think Roger really fits into our system in that area of the field,” Vermes said. “There is no doubt that he can play left back and even the left wing position. But I think because of his bite he just gives us so much more in that middle part of the field.”

Espinoza admitted he was enjoying his time in the middle but said he understood things could change when Arnaud comes back from injury or should Vermes decide he is more valuable elsewhere on the field.

For now, he said he’s just enjoying the perks of playing in the middle of the park.

“You don’t get blamed for all the goals,” Espinoza laughed.