Roger Espinoza has been back in Kansas City for more than a week, but what might have been still bounces around in his head from time to time.
What if his blistering shot in the last minute of regulation against Mexico had been a foot more to the right? What if it El Tri goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera had been unsighted for a split second longer instead of diving to palm the ball away?
More importantly, what if it had been Honduras, instead of Mexico, that moved on with the opportunity to knock off the United States in the Gold Cup final?
“If I hit that goal, the whole of Honduras would have been going crazy,” Espinoza said. “He barely got it. I just decided to hit it, and it almost went in. I thought it was a good shot, but it got saved. That’s how soccer goes.”
A few hundred miles away, Espinoza’s club manager, Peter Vermes was cheering for a slightly different reason.
After missing out on the services of his most versatile left-sided player for the better part of a month, Vermes knew Espinoza would soon be back in the fold and buoyed by the confidence he gained playing a crucial role in the midfield for Los Catrachos.
“I was cheering against him because I wanted him back,” Vermes said, clearly joking but perhaps a little bit serious all the same.
Fortunately for Espinoza, the team he returned to was nothing like the one he left.
When Kansas City’s starting left back departed to join his national team, Kansas City had just lost its fifth-straight match – in stoppage time no less – and was toiling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. By the time he got back, Sporting was on a seven-game unbeaten run in all competitions and had dragged itself right back into the thick of the playoff race.
Appropriately enough, Espinoza was thrown into Vermes’ lineup last weekend just days after playing nearly 120 minutes against Mexico, helping Kansas City knock off Vancouver and continue their streak.
“Right before I left, we lost in the last minute to the Seattle Sounders,” Espinoza said. “It felt like everybody’s confidence was down. I came back to a team that hadn’t lost in six or seven games. When I got back, Peter put me right in there and everyone’s confidence was up. I was able to join into that.”
And now that he’s back, the question going forward is where Espinoza fits into the squad from a positional standpoint.
Seth Sinovic is the de facto starter at left back for now, meaning Espinoza is a likely replacement for Davy Arnaud, who will undergo sports hernia surgery next week, especially since he played that box-to-box midfield role against Vancouver and for Honduras.
Vermes didn’t give any insight into his own preferences this week ahead of Kansas City’s trip to Portland, pointing out he had plenty of cover in the midfield beside Espinoza, but seemed pleased with the player’s contribution in the middle of the field against the Whitecaps.
It’s a spot Espinoza said he is becoming increasing comfortable in as well, especially as his game has improved on both sides of the ball in recent seasons.
But he’s not picky. He just wants to contribute to Kansas City’s current run up the table and play as much as he can.
“I hope wherever I get to play I am able to help the team,” Espinoza said. “It doesn’t matter. I would play goalie if they told me to play goalie. I feel good where I am. If that’s what (Peter) feels, I’ll play there. If he feels I should play somewhere else, I’ll play there.”