SAN JOSE, Calif. – Watch a minute of San Jose Earthquakes winger Cristian Espinoza on an attacking run, the ball tucked at his feet, and it becomes quite clear why Spanish heavyweights CF Villarreal shelled out a reported $8 million for his services back in 2016.
Loaned out every season since his arrival to Villarreal, Espinoza’s debut with El Submarino Amarillo has yet to take place. But that surely didn’t discourage Matias Almeyda – who has admitted followed the Argentine closely since his early days with his boyhood team Huracan – and the Quakes from signing him to a one-year loan with no option to buy in January.
He’s versatile, daring, armed with pace and mesmerizing skill. In the bold words of teammate Tommy Thompson, Espinoza is one of the most talented imports to don the Black-&-Blue.
"For me, Cristian's up there with the best,” Thompson told MLSsoccer.com this week. “I think what he's done has been fun to watch. It's impressive that despite not being able to speak English fluently, he's come into this locker room and gotten acclimated so quickly.
“He gets along great with the guys, he gets along great with the coaches, so it's a testament to his character,” Thompson added. “He's one of the players to look for in the future because he's got special characteristics and I feel fortunate to be able to play with him."
With two goals and eight assists in 17 appearances, the 24-year-old Argentine isn’t in line to break records yet, but he has been a fundamental piece to Matias Almeyda’s thought-provoking scheme, often spearheading counterattacks or dismantling defenses singlehandedly.
In prior years, Espinoza was just asking for minutes. Now, he has the responsibility of adding a dangerous element of attack to a team that finished second-to-last in goals scored (49) in the Western Conference last season.
"I remember speaking about the objectives I set for myself and the objectives we have as a group,” Espinoza remarked. “I'm really happy with how things are going right now, and now comes the most important part of the season. Now is the time to remain focused, we have to keep pushing for more, and it's important that we don't settle. Like I've said before, we need to be hungry and that will be our driving force in fighting for big things.”
With his future after this season uncertain, there are no indications the Quakes loanee is going to take his foot off the pedal. In fact, there’s a good chance his captivating play has yet to reach its maximum potential.
“Personally, I want to keep helping the team the same way I have been doing, by scoring and assisting on goals,” Espinoza added. “They both make me very happy, whether it's scoring a goal, or like I've always said, sometimes I'm even happier to pass to a teammate for a goal.”