Roger Espinoza, his long, dark hair bouncing in the breeze, was a whirling, scampering sensation for Honduras in their opening Hexagonal victory. Collecting the ball near the edge of his own penalty area time and again, he burst forward into space, or sent an inch-perfect pass up the pitch, always moving the Catrachos forward in the now-famous 2-1 victory over USA that puts them top the CONCACAF qualifying standings.
“I didn’t really notice that I had a lot of possession,” the 26-year-old Wigan Athletic midfielder told FIFA.com about that day last month, when his many touches were purposeful, pointed, and cheered wildly by the home crowd. He added an understatement: “but I do like to be a part of the game and I think the best team won.”
With his tireless running and overall panache, Espinoza ran rings around an American midfield that struggled to keep hold of the ball, and a grip on the game. And were it not for a twist of fate, the midfielder could well have been playing in a USA jersey that mid-day in San Pedro Sula.
“I could write a whole book about how I came to live in the States,” Espinoza laughed in his American-accented English. A year after his birth, Espinoza’s father made a decision: to move his young family to the United States for a chance at a better life, to find the American dream.
“It took 11 years for us to be reunited again,” Espinoza explained. His father, Anibal, went on his own to the States to find work in 1986, leaving the rest of the family behind in Honduras. They kept in touch through photos and phone calls. Anibal visited once when his son was four, bringing him a football, but Espinoza has no memory of it. Finally, in 1998, the green cards came through and the Espinozas were a family again, this time in Denver, Colorado, a mile high in the iconic Rocky Mountains.
New home, new start
Espinoza became a US citizen in 2008, went through the American high school and University system, and, most importantly, he continued to play the game that sustained him back in the streets of Puerto Cortes on Honduras’ northern coast. When he signed a professional contract with Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City that same year, Honduras’ national team scouts took note. Espinoza earned his first cap in the 2009 Central American Cup of Nations, where he scored and ended any speculation about which country he would bless with his abilities.
“I decided to play for Honduras because I feel more Honduran than American,” admitted Espinoza, who now has 27 caps for his birth country. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t conflicted. “I wish USA the best and I want them to do better than any other team – but not better than Honduras.”
USA’s loss was Honduras’ gain. He went on to help the Central Americans reach the last FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa in 2010 and the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, before hitting his peak last year at the London Olympic Games. He spearheaded a young Honduran side that turned heads by beating Spain and drawing semi-finalists Japan. Espinoza scored in the last-eight loss to Brazil, a game in which he excelled.
“Mentally, it prepared us as a group,” he said of those London Games. “Now the blend between the older and younger players [in the national team] is working very well.” It also, on a personal level, helped Espinoza, who caught the eye of Roberto Martinez. The Wigan boss offered Espinoza his first taste of the big time, the English Premier League, where he says he now “plays against the best.”
Fresh blend for Honduras
Honduras struggled in the previous round of FIFA World Cup qualifying, losing and drawing Panama before eventually sneaking into the final round with an 8-1 thrashing of Canada. Now, with their dominant performance against USA, and the blend of veterans and Olympic-seasoned youth, Honduras have hit a rich vein of form. They sit on top of the Hexagonal, leading Espinoza to believe a second straight World Cup appearance awaits.
“We have a lot of good young players, you saw that in the Olympics, and they are good enough to replace those who have retired,” said Espinoza about the Honduras team that lost three straight games at South Africa 2010, sparking the mass retirement of former idols Amado Guevara, David Suazo and Carlos Pavon. “We have a big chance to reach Brazil if we stay mentally prepared,” he added before sending a warning: "Last time we fell short, now we want to show the world what Honduras can do.”
Coached by Colombian tactician Luis Suarez, Honduras still has a way to go before booking a ticket to Brazil 2014. Up next is a visit from mighty Mexico, who won the Olympic Gold in London and are, according to Espinoza, “the best team in CONCACAF.
“It will be tough for us,” he said of the 22 March meeting in San Pedro Sula, the same venue where he orchestrated victory over USA, “even though we are at home.” Four days later, The Catrachos travel to face upstarts Panama, who they failed to beat on two occasions earlier in qualifying.
“We were too comfortable and we got over-confident,” Espinoza said about those games, an implicit threat in his voice, one that all five of the remaining teams in CONCACAF qualifying would do well to hear. “We’re ready for the challenge and we’re hungry to succeed.”
We have a big chance to reach Brazil if we stay mentally prepared.