Roger Espinoza is just the kind of guy to make history.
Less than three years after helping lead Ohio State to its first NCAA championship game, Espinoza was in the starting lineup for Honduras during this morning’s game against Chile at the World Cup in South Africa, becoming the first Buckeye to not only make a roster for the world’s most popular sporting event but also to play in a game.
Though Honduras lost 1-0 to the attack-minded Chileans at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, Espinoza played the entire game and acquitted himself well with a couple of daring runs up the left flank for Los Catrachos.
“It’s definitely a dream come true,” he told BuckeyeSports.com of playing in the World Cup before he left for the event. “I think for every kid who plays soccer and wants to go pro, the World Cup is the highest thing you can reach in professional soccer.”
Espinoza’s Honduras side is guaranteed at least two more games in Group H, first on June 21 against tournament favorite Spain and finally on June 25 vs. Switzerland.
The 23-year-old’s accomplishment is the peak of a rapid rise through the ranks of the Honduran player pool in recent years.
He made his first appearance for the national team in January 2009 in the UNCAF Nations Cup, a tournament that pits Central American sides against one another. After making his debut against Belize in the opening round, Espinoza played in three games in the tournament staged in his home nation and scored his first international goal in the third-place match as Honduras earned a 1-0 win against El Salvador.
Though Espinoza didn’t play in any of the World Cup qualifiers that ran through October 2009, he did play in the Gold Cup that summer, a tournament that serves as the championship of North American, Central American and Caribbean nations. Honduras reached the semifinals of the tournament before being knocked out by the United States, with Espinoza scoring in the preliminary round against Grenada.
“It was great,” he said of the Gold Cup. “It actually helped me a lot since it was my first time playing in a big tournament like that with my national team. It just made me think how much I love soccer and how much I want to keep working hard to be on the top stages in soccer.”
His third and final international goal came in a friendly Jan. 23, 2010, when he tallied the Hondurans’ third score in a 3-1 victory against the United States.
Scoring against the Americans was perhaps fitting, as Espinoza – who was born in Puerto Cortés, Honduras, before moving to Colorado at the age of 11 – is a dual citizen between the U.S. and Honduras. Currently a member of Major League Soccer’s Kansas City Wizards, Espinoza is also the only American-based player on his country’s 23-man World Cup roster, which includes 14 players who suit up in Honduras’ domestic league.
Some big names are that roster for Honduras, which is participating in its first World Cup since 1982 and only second overall. Three team members who played today – Maynor Figueroa and Hendry Thomas of Wigan Athletic and Wilson Palacios of Tottenham Hotspur – earn regular playing time in the prestigious English Premier League, while former MLS MVP Amado Guevara and all-time leading national team scorer Carlos Pavón also started.
“Playing with those types of players just makes you better because they know about soccer,” Espinoza said. “They’ve been in all the leagues all over the world. It’s good to hear from them and learn from them, and I just keep getting better and developing as a player.”
Espinoza’s quick rise at the international level has echoed that of his career in the United States. After playing two seasons for Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz., he arrived at Ohio State for the 2007 season and quickly made an impact.
Serving as a dangerous attacking force on the left side, Espinoza had three goals and three assists on the way to first-team All-Big Ten status. He also had a goal in the national championship game against Wake Forest, shining on the national stage to the point that he attracted professional interest.
From there, Espinoza chose to forgo his final year at OSU to enter the MLS as part of Generation adidas, a program aimed at raising the level of young soccer talent in the U.S. by providing guaranteed contracts to prospects who turn professional early. Kansas City took him 11th overall in the first round of the 2008 draft.
“Ohio State helped me a lot, just to get a scholarship to go there and study there,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on going pro when I got there, but we did so well as a team it put me on the stage and I think it helped me a lot. Everybody on the soccer team worked hard. It was unbelievable how they treated the athletes and helped them get to the next level or wherever they may be going.”
Espinoza played in 38 games including 18 starts during his first two years with Kansas City, scoring his lone goal in 2008 when he returned to Ohio’s capital to play the Columbus Crew. The team’s 2008 Rookie of the Year, he also has five career assists.
This season, he moved into a full-time starting role with the Wizards. Though he was kept off the score sheet, Espinoza started each of the first seven games and placed third on the team in minutes played in that span.
Espinoza’s last game before meeting up with the Honduras squad was a 2-2 draw May 15 against Chicago. From there, he left for pre-World Cup training with his national team – and to make Ohio State history.
“I’m just proud to be the first Buckeye in the World Cup and I thank Ohio State for the opportunity they gave me when I was there,” he said. “It was great.”