MLS in Focus: SKC’s Roger Espinoza

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by RYAN BRISTER
MLS Writer

Sporting Kansas City has more points per game than any other team in Major League Soccer. To be typing those words in late July, a year after the team finished fifth in the Eastern Conference, is frankly a bit of a surprise.

How have they pulled this off?

It’s hard not to notice the thrilling attack. SKC has scored the fourth-most goals in MLS, despite playing fewer games than many other teams. The “three-headed monster” of Dom Dwyer, Krisztian Nemeth, and Benny Feilhaber is the only trio of teammates to each have six goals. With 10 assists, second-most in the league, Feilhaber is having a season that deserves more attention—including, I believe, from Jurgen Klinsmann.

But that attack is built on strong, aggressive defense. The best offense for Kansas City is a good defense, and the defense that helped SKC win MLS Cup two years ago has been revived. A lot of people deserve credit for that. Soni Mustivar, rookie left backs, and the return to health of Matt Besler have all helped the team bounce back from a rough 2014.

I could be writing about any of the above names, but I decided to note the more workmanlike play of Roger Espinoza. After two years with Wigan Athletic, the 28-year-old Honduran midfielder has returned to Kansas City in a move that has been great for both sides.


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Last week against Montreal, Espinoza was a wrecking ball from the opening whistle. Peter Vermes likes to play with a high press. The idea is simple: the higher-up on the field you win the ball, the more dangerous a chance it creates. It works to perfection here, as Espinoza wins the ball just outside Montreal’s box here, and two passes later it is in the back of the net.

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Just two minutes later, Espinoza chases down the ball and SKC is on the attack again.

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Espinoza doesn’t get the ball here, but his efforts force Oyongo into a wild clearance that results in SKC possession. Or, it would have if Matt Besler’s header was better. His pressure creates these rushed, long passes that are easy for SKC’s quick centerbacks to pick off.

So now SKC has a lead, but how do they maintain it? There are many teams that would drop deep, invite pressure, and hope to survive the onslaught until the final whistle. This strategy opens up chances on the counter, but it places a heavy burden on the defenders responsible for stopping chance after chance in high-danger areas of the field.

SKCEPDVermes and SKC have a different way of protecting leads. The active midfield, Espinoza included, serves as an outer wall, smothering attacks before they ever become dangerous. The above looks like a small thing, but in slowing down Montreal’s attack and forcing it to go backwards, ten seconds go off the clock and the Impact have to start again from square one. 
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He does it again in the 80th minute. If you’re a fan of the losing team in this situation, this is the sort of thing that infuriates you. This is not what the Impact want to be doing here.

SKCEPD4This is the 89th minute of a game played in July in Kansas City. And Espinoza still has the energy to prevent Montreal from making what should be simple passes out of back.

The end result of 90 minutes of this sort of play is that the Impact had just six shots all game. Only two of them were in the last half hour, when the match was 2-1. In their last three MLS matches, SKC has allowed just a single goal from 25 shots—fewer than one every 10 minutes.


The thing about Espinoza’s play is that it has a ripple effect across the entire team.  And the effort he puts in, along with Mustivar behind him, creates a sort of safety blanket for Feilhaber to have the freedom to go forward and roam. I have mentioned most of KC’s starting XI here, and that’s not a coincidence. To be this good despite not spending much money, Sporting needs a team of pieces that all work together just like this. The machine is well-oiled again, and other teams need to beware of — and take notes from — the Sporting KC organization.