Cristian Espinoza's MVP form puts spotlight on resurgent San Jose Earthquakes


The score level at one-all, Cristian Espinoza dashed down the right wing onto a pass that put him near the penalty area. He took one touch to get into the box, then floated a ball toward the back post where San Jose Earthquakes teammate Jeremy Ebobisse headed it in.

It was just another of Espinoza’s league-leading 26 key passes this season, which, combined with five goals in April, helped push him to Major League Soccer's Player of the Month award.

Setting an MVP pace

The Argentine is on pace for an individual-best campaign, needing just one goal to match the seven he scored in 2022. He also had 14 assists last year, but with the Quakes unable to get out of the Western Conference basement, much of Espinoza’s body of work went unnoticed on the national stage. Now that San Jose are sitting squarely in an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs position through 10 matches, the league is starting to take note.

More eyeballs won’t change what Espinoza tries to do on the field, he said. At the same time, he admits it’s nice to win awards as he seeks the ultimate goal of winning team trophies.

“When you’re doing things well and trying to have consistency with your level of play, recognition is always nice,” Espinoza said. “If the recognition comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, I’ve got to keep working like I always have.

“I’m a person who firmly believes that work and effort always ends up paying off. I think right now, after such a long time and so much work, things are coming together for me.”

With 6g/3a to date, Espinoza certainly belongs in the early 2023 Landon Donovan MLS MVP conversation along with the likes of Atlanta United's Thiago Almada, LAFC's Dénis Bouanga and Seattle's Jordan Morris.

Espinoza will get a warm reception this weekend when the Quakes host reigning champions LAFC Saturday night at Levi’s Stadium (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), hoping to show a crowd expected to surpass 40,000 that this a team ready to compete with the league’s best.

The long journey to a NoCal home

Despite a few frustrating years in terms of results in San Jose, success isn’t foreign to the 28-year-old, now in his fifth MLS season.

Espinoza started his career by turning pro at Club Atlético Huracán, the Buenos Aires club where he developed as a youth player. He helped Huracán secure promotion, win the Copa Argentina and make the Copa Sudamericana final. He also had five assists for Argentina’s winning 2015 U-20 South American championship squad and played at the U-20 World Cup later that year.

Those standout showings earned Espinoza a move to LaLiga side Villarreal, but he never played for the Yellow Submarine, immediately going on loan to a pair of other clubs in Spain before ending up back in Argentina with Boca Juniors. Even there, he struggled to find the same rhythm he’d had with his childhood club.

When he got a call from incoming San Jose manager Matías Almeyda before the 2019 season, it was an opportunity he felt he had to take.

“I was coming off two-and-a-half challenging years when it came to my game rhythm. It was an easy decision, and I was excited to come here and be able to have the consistency I was looking for,” Espinoza said. “I think as time has passed I’ve been able to find that consistency and much more.”

Much more, indeed. Since making the choice in 2019 to link up with Almeyda – now coaching AEK Athens in the Greek Super League – Espinoza has put himself in the Quakes’ record books. Last Saturday’s assist for Ebobisse in San Jose’s 2-2 draw at Austin FC was the 47th in his San Jose career, moving him into a tie for second place on the team’s all-time charts, just three helpers behind longtime leader Shea Salinas.

That type of consistency helps Espinoza and his family know that, after bouncing around from Buenos Aires to Spain and back, San Jose is where they belong.

“I feel very comfortable and feel at home,” he said. “From the first day I got here, the fans and the people that work at the club accepted me with a lot of love. I’m really thankful for that. I think what makes San Jose special is that my kids were born here, so no matter what happens in the future San Jose will always be in my heart.

“This city and the club has a very special meaning to me.”

Rising expectations in San Jose

He hopes he has a special meaning to the club, too. While making San Jose a home, earning regular playing time and forming a special connection with fans already marks the move to Northern California as a success, Espinoza would love to deliver even more to the Quakes faithful.

He can’t do it alone, but under first-year head coach Luchi González, he's seen not only individual benefits but also a jolt to the team as a collective.

“Sometimes after having a manager for so long, changes are really tough. It’s difficult, but I think the team knew how to respond at times [under interim coach Alex Covelo last season],” he said. “Today, with Luchi, things are going well – not only for me personally but for the whole team because you see the confidence in the team. It’s showing experience in a lot of situations that maybe we didn’t know how to deal with before and where now we’re being a bit smarter.

“Luchi’s arrival was good for everyone.”

Creating that long-term change to turn the team into a perennial contender won’t happen with one great match, a standout month or even a great season from one player. But each victory and every marquee moment helps.

With the defending champions in town for a game at the home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, this weekend is an opportunity to show fans locally, nationally and internationally that he and the Quakes can sustain their strong start.

“Having the chance to play there in an official league match against a great team is going to create a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, and hopefully we can take advantage of that and enjoy this game by putting together a great match like the ones we’ve been playing,” he said.

Translation: Stay tuned. More key passes, more goals and more assists are on the way.