BY CHRISTIAN ARAOS
It’s one of the biggest complaints those in the soccer world have towards MLS: the reversed calendar. MLS’ season format is often criticized for forcing players to perform in the hot summer across the country (especially down South) affecting players’ worth in the transfer market due to its contrasting schedule with the major European leagues.
Ironically, both items of criticism were instrumental in Honduras’ win against the US.
The ironic aspect of the MLS calendar working to Honduras’ advantage is that MLS training camp just started which would mean players are out of shape, right? Not exactly. The fact that the winter months are idle for MLS allows The Catrachos to fully participation in the Copa Centroamericana; the tournament used to qualify for this summer’s Gold Cup. Seven of the players that played in and lost the Final for Honduras started in the Hexagonal victory, including both goal scorers.
The US only had three players from the January camp in the starting XI.
Now, the argument can be made that this is why the US has their prolonged January training camp and why Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann framed it as a preparation for Honduras, but while the US practiced, scrimmaged and played in the most forgettable friendly since the previous friendly against Canada, Honduras was playing four competitive games in ten days. Running through the gauntlet in Costa Rica meant that any fitness/heat-related issues for the Honduran players were quickly dealt with. An extended camp that followed soon after meant that while the bulk of the US team were trying to acclimate from freezing temperatures in Europe to tropical conditions in Central America, the Hondurans could just focus on preparing for their more talented opponents.
In the end, it would be a familiar face who would make the difference; ironically, a rising star who just moved to Europe. Of course, that is Roger Espinoza. One of the reasons behind Sporting Kansas City’s rise in recent seasons has been the play of their stellar holding midfielder. While Graham Zusi, Kei Kamara et al. put together an attack that propelled the squad to first in the Eastern Conference in each of the past two seasons, Espinoza held down the center of the pitch and fulfilled every role Head Coach Peter Vermes asked of him.
His superb play parlayed into a free transfer to Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League where he has made an immediate impact providing two assists in a 2-2 draw against Geoff Cameron’s Stoke City on the 29th.
How does the fact that Espinoza made a winter move prove advantageous for Honduras? It’s all about incentive. With the Premier League already in full effect and Wigan (once again) in a relegation struggle, Espinoza had to get up to full match fitness quickly or sit on the end of the bench. While it took Espinoza just over a week to go from the dotted line to the playing field, it also took him that long to make an impact as he recorded an assist in Wigan’s FA Cup win against Bournemouth on the 15th.
As he heated up, he received Premier League starts which had him not only fully fit but very much in-form. The seamless transition for the MLS calendar to the Premiership ensured his body was up to the task of World Cup Qualifying while still familiar with the demands heat bring upon a player.
The result? Espinoza bossed the midfield, completing the second most passes out of any player and putting pressure on a wilting and withering US midfield.
All the analysis of yesterday’s game can be boiled down to a simple conclusion; Honduras survived the heat in February because MLS taught them how to do it in August … and a little extra winter work didn’t hurt much either.