English football fans love Roger Espinoza. Most of them just don’t know it yet, but they do. The midfielder was one of the stars of the summer Olympics, and has been strongly linked with a move to Wigan Athletic over the past few transfer windows. Those who were at St. James Park on August 4th this summer (you weren’t?!) fell in love with him first.
It was the quarterfinals of the Men’s Olympic football tournament, and Espinoza’s Honduras went blow for blow with mighty Brazil. But after what became one of the best games of the tournament, Los Catrachos fell to the eventual runners up, 3-2. There were praiseworthy performances by both teams, but the bulk of the applause had already been given to Espinoza before the final whistle.
A neutral-heavy crowd of 42,166 witnessed Espinoza and his signature jet-black mop hustle tirelessly around the pitch as he chased down Brazilians, assisted one goal, then scored another, then… then… got sent off for a second caution in the 90th minute.
The ensuing scene was unforgettable. As Espinoza walked off the pitch, shaking hands with opponents, the crowd at St. James rose up and gave Espinoza a standing ovation.
“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, “They knew I was acknowledging their clap, and all the sudden it hit me that I was getting a standing ovation at the Olympics.”
Was Espinoza the best player on the pitch that day? No. The hardest working? By a long shot. Quite honestly, Espinoza is the hardest working player on the pitch every day. For a fighting club like Wigan Athletic, that’s a trait as important as any.
Espinoza is known for his passionate style of play. It’s what caught the eye of Olympic crowds and European scouts this summer and has impressed myself and anyone else who has watched him play for Sporting Kansas City over the past four years. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a harder tackling, more industrious central midfielder in all of MLS.
Although the 5ft 11in, 160lb Espinoza is quick, technically gifted, and possesses that trademark Latin flair, it’s his hard nose defending Wigan Athletic will employ him for. Currently, he usually plays a holding midfield position in a 4-3-3 system similar to what Martinez prefers at Wigan. In that role, he is the heartbeat of a stingy Kansas City team that has conceded a league best 22 goals in 25 matches.
Interestingly, Espinoza earned the nickname “Roger the Red” in 2008 during his rookie season in the MLS. After picking up two ejections in his first six appearances for the then-Kansas City Wizards, he quickly earned a reputation for his aggressive, sometimes reckless style of play. But since then, Espinoza has tamed things down.
“I’m a very intense guy and I want to win games,” says 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.”
Although he’s certainly a more discipline player these days, I can personally never forget the first time I saw the tenacity of Roger Espinoza. It was in 2007, before he’d even gone pro, and Espinoza was playing for Ohio State in the College Cup Final against Wake Forest. While Ohio State was trailing 2-1 (guess who the goal scorer was) when Espinoza leapt for a 50-50 ball with a high boot that smashed a Wake Forest defender in the face. Somehow, Espinoza escaped with a yellow card. The defender? Not so lucky. He was left a bloody mess with a 6-inch gash across his face.
If Espinoza, who is in the last year of his contract with MLS, does sign with Wigan Athletic, it will make him Roberto Martinez’s fourth Honduran player in as many years as the Latics manager. No slight to Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios, or Hendry Thomas, but for a team that has barely fought off relegation the past two seasons, Roger Espinoza might be just the fighter Wigan Athletic needs to survive in the top flight another year.