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By his own admission, Roger Espinoza has forgotten a few of the words to “Carmen Ohio” in the time he’s spent traveling the globe playing professional soccer. If you test his memory by offering an “O-H,” though, he’ll excitedly reply with the one and only appropriate response.
“I-O, baby,” Espinoza said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Espinoza, a native of Puerto Cortes, Honduras, would seem to have every reason to be proud of his short time at Ohio State. In just four months on campus, the midfield maestro helped guide the Buckeyes to the NCAA College Cup and a national runner-up finish during the 2007 season.
Dancing through defenders with the ball at his feet, dictating the tempo of games against national powerhouses – these were common occurrences with Espinoza in the lineup, as Ohio State head coach John Bluem recalled to BSB. They were so common, in fact, that it quickly became evident during the season that Espinoza probably wouldn’t be staying in Columbus to finish out his eligibility.
“There were times in the national championship and semifinal where he did some things that were, like, just shocking,” Bluem said. “You know, getting out of a complicated situation under a lot of pressure and just – boom – out of it. We joke around and say that we helped Roger and Roger helped us because the one quarter that he was here – that was all – he came in, went through preseason and autumn quarter and the pros came in and took him right after that season. Guaranteed three-year contract.
“We were fortunate to have the opportunity to coach Roger, let’s put it that way. We’ve had a lot of very, very good players at the program at Ohio State – he’s just special. He’s a cut above the rest.”
Espinoza’s stock has only risen in the time since. After leaving Ohio State for the professional ranks following the 2007 college season, Espinoza has participated in the 2010 World Cup and 2012 London Olympics with the Honduran national team.
After jumping from Sporting KC of Major League Soccer to Wigan Athletic in northwest England, Espinoza became the first ex-Buckeye or ex-Big Ten player to score a goal in the Barclay’s Premier League – perhaps the No. 1 league in the world – during a 3-2 Wigan loss to Swansea City on May 7.
Four days later, he hoisted the FA Cup trophy – which goes to the team that wins a knockout tournament featuring every professional club in England – after putting in a full 90 minutes in Wigan’s shocking upset of Premier League titan Manchester City in the title match.
Espinoza wasn’t merely present on the field for these big contests. Rather, he was leaving a mark on the games. ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas said Espinoza would be considered a dangerous force on any field in the world.
“From an MLS perspective, he quickly emerged as not just a good player, but a great player,” Lalas told BSB. “Anytime you mention Honduras, (Espinoza is) a player – regardless of whether he was in MLS or not – that you recognized and understood he was somebody you were going to have to shut down.
“His ability to control the flow of the game and the rhythm and his calm on the ball made him the ideal for an MLS player. It’s really not surprising that he’s parlayed it now into a potentially successful career in Europe.”
Espinoza moved to the Denver area from Honduras at the age of 12 then began his college career in the junior college ranks. After two frustrating years of JUCO soccer at Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz., there was no question in Espinoza’s mind that he was going to play NCAA Division I soccer. That was the step, he said, to best advance his career.
However, not everyone feels the same way about NCAA Division I soccer.
Espinoza’s case is part of a larger debate regarding the NCAA’s true relevance to soccer as it exists elsewhere in the world. Some, including expert observers, former players and internationally renowned coaches, wonder if the NCAA is a legitimate path to the top leagues in the world or if it hinders players’ progress with its many rules and regulations.
Is Espinoza’s case unique, or can others expect success by following the same path through the NCAA Division I game? As it turns out, experts say playing in the NCAA, and at Ohio State in particular, can speed up the process of climbing into the world of big-time soccer, at the very least.
For the soft-spoken Espinoza’s part, he said he never loses sight of what he gained while attending Ohio State and playing within the NCAA structure.
“(Ohio State) is where it all started for me,” Espinoza said. “I always think about Ohio State. Now that I’m playing professionally, and even before I got drafted from Ohio State, those friends that I made at Ohio State are friends forever. They made me feel home on the first day. I always speak to those guys all the time.”
Lalas is familiar with the kind of success that Espinoza enjoyed in college and advocates what the NCAA provides on and off the field to student-athletes. During a four-year career at Rutgers from 1988-91, Lalas led the Scarlet Knights to back-to-back College Cup appearances in 1989 and ’90 as well as the 1990 national championship game.
After college, it was on to U.S. national team stardom, a trial with English power Arsenal and a spell with Calcio Padova, then of Italy’s top league, Serie A. Lalas would later return to America to play in MLS.
Like Espinoza, he attributes significant development in his game to playing in college. Also like Espinoza, Lalas places much emphasis on the value of the education he received.
“The NCAA certainly made me a better soccer player,” Lalas told BSB. “I was playing against better players and at a higher level. There’s a discussion about how relevant collegiate soccer in the United States is to the players in terms of the process, and I still argue that the lessons you learn and the things that you go through (in college) are important.
“The collegiate experience can be incredibly beneficial. In Roger’s case, I think he is a better soccer player, and not just because of the kicking of the ball but because of the experience that he went through.”
Lalas also said that playing in college provides players with a great deal of exposure, something that weighed heavily in Bluem’s recruitment of Espinoza.
Espinoza flirted with some traditional college soccer powers during his recruitment, but part of the reason the he chose the Buckeyes over other potential suitors was because of the size of the stage Ohio State could provide him with, Bluem said.
Bluem was right. Espinoza was virtually unheard of by professional scouts while in junior college, he said, but the publicity he gained during the 2007 season helped make him a rare NCAA soccer one-and-done.
Most players, however, might get exposure similar to what Espinoza experienced only during a small window of the season during the NCAA Tournament. After all, the season itself lasts only about four months from preseason camp to the national championship game. The fact that players have such a small window to show their talent to the world is what bothers Fox announcer and analyst Rob Stone.
Stone played at Colgate University from 1988-1991 and said that while he, too, appreciated the classroom and campus experiences, the NCAA is not the ideal path for players with serious aspirations of playing overseas or at the international level.
“Let’s be honest, if you’re a soccer player, you’re playing year-round,” Stone told BSB. “I don’t care if you’re 7 years old or if you’re in your 40s, you’re playing every month of the year because you love the game. So why are these college kids denied the opportunity to further excel and further benefit their careers because the NCAA says there’s only ‘X’ amount of hours you’re allowed to play and have contact with the team and only so many games you’re allowed to have? It’s ludicrous. Particularly in soccer, I think it hurts our sport more than any other sport that the NCAA oversees.
“(United States national team coach) Jürgen Klinsmann has said to me numerous times, ‘I need to sit down with these NCAA folks and get through to them how important it is that programs continue to play throughout the course of the year because it’s ruining the development of a big chunk of players and it’s hurting the U.S. national team pool.’ ”
While Espinoza was able to make a quick rise up through the Honduran player pool, the success of delivering players to the U.S. national team is mixed. Twelve of the 27 players called up for the team’s most recent World Cup qualifiers – including the win in Columbus on Sept. 10 vs. Mexico that clinched the U.S. participation in the 2014 Cup – have college experience on their résumés.
Seven others came through the IMG Academy, a residency program in Florida for promising youth players, while a handful of players either were born or grew up playing overseas.
The stark contrast in opinions regarding the NCAA Division I soccer system can tend to lead those involved in the discussion on a continual loop. But even NCAA critics such as Stone acknowledge that advantage of playing at a school like Ohio State, saying that there are worse ways to attempt to come up in professional soccer.
“Ohio State is an elite institution that is growing and growing in the college soccer world,” Stone said. “They just have wonderful facilities and they have the backing of the athletic department. The NCAA is a viable option, absolutely. Is it the ideal option in the way that it’s set up in its current form? Absolutely not.”
Espinoza rebuffs NCAA critics to this day. Clearly, the NCAA experience worked for him, and he says he’d still recommend that path to youth players today.
“It was crazy because after going to junior college I kind of lost hope,” he said. “I ended up being wrong, and I can tell many people they’re wrong about D-I. Ohio State is where it all started for me.”