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“I’m so grateful”: Jake Davis on Roger Espinoza; Roger on retirement, leadership, more

Roger Espinoza’s influence radiates well beyond the soccer field, resonating in the hearts and souls of each person Espinoza has influenced along the way.  

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Thad Bell Photography

Longtime Kansas City Wizards/Sporting Kansas City player Roger Espinoza announced his retirement last week. The beloved midfielder was honored before Saturday night’s Sporting Kansas City match after a 16-year career. In the Sporting Kansas City locker room at Children’s Mercy Park after their 2-0 win over visiting Austin FC, 22-year-old midfielder/back Jake Davis was asked about Espinoza, who was set free by Sporting at the end of the 2023 season.

Davis had a lot to say.

“When he left last year, I was very emotional about that because he really got to me. I wanted to be better for him, and it made me want to be better for the team,” Davis related.

A 16-year career, 14 with Kansas City and 338 matches played. 12g 45a. Three U.S. Open Cup titles. One FA Cup with Wigan Athletic. Two World Cups with Honduras.

But Espinoza’s numbers only tell half of the story. Or less.

“The guy is a legend. He has played with this club for a long time, longer than when I was at the academy. He is a special human,” Davis stated. “To just be around him last year and the years before, he took me under his wing in training, off the field, everything. He made a really big impact on me.”

The inspiring kindness and sense of humor that brought all together. The energetic play matched only by the energy he brought to training, to team meetings, to the locker room. The reality-based honesty. The willingness to push the game forward however. The never-failing leadership.

Espinoza’s influence radiates well beyond the soccer field, resonating in the hearts and souls of each person Espinoza has influenced along the way.

During Saturday night’s halftime, Espinoza met with media. I asked how his long lauded and likely now emulated leadership came about.

“My parents sacrificed so much, first of all for coming to America [for better opportunities]; it was very difficult,” he began. “I saw my parents waking up very early in the morning, getting home late. Never, never in my life did I hear my parents complain one bit about anything.

“It becomes all about that. You lead by example. You don’t complain about anything. I don’t know if that made me the leader I was. But I always thought about my parents. They never complained and did all the work and always worried about my siblings and I. That’s the reason I did everything I did on the field.”

Hard work and hard play on the field were hallmarks of Espinoza. But so is his patented playfulness. The passion instilled by his parents endless.

“Last year he would talk to me while I was playing right back and we even huddled after games when I played midfield, he was like, ‘Come on, you got to kick some people. What are you doing?’” said Davis with a chuckle. “Even now that he is retired, he still talks with me about what I can do better. He’s just a special guy. It’s just consistent him being there for me.”

Related:  The Appreciation of SKC’s Roger Espinoza from 2018

The Davis-Espinoza relationship was (and still is) intertwined more than within field tactics or the ribbing of a teammate who played a similar position. “Last year, we had moments where we would play soccer tennis, just him and I. It was just him and I competing with each other. It wasn’t always a learning moment, it was just us competing. He made me a better player.”

Espinoza’s legacy is cemented in the experiences and belonging he gave to teammates and fans alike. But what does Espinoza see as his legacy?

“Leaving the club better than it was is something I will always think about,” Espinoza pointed. “The Wizards days were very tough days. That is the legacy we leave as players. I always like to include all of my teammates that were with me; it wasn’t all about me. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Seth Sinovic, Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury, CJ Sapong, Jimmy Nielsen, and then it goes back before that. All those guys left that legacy, and they helped me do it.”

Espinoza looks to be involved with the game still, though he is not sure in what capacity. Right now, the involvement takes shape in helping with soccer camps and going to all the games he can – Sporting Kansas City, Kansas City Comets, and, of course, supporting his wife, Lo Labonta, with the Kansas City Current.

It has been quite a life in soccer for a player who gained little attention after his junior year in college. When then-Wizards General Manager Peter Vermes noticed his talent and convinced MLS to make Espinoza a Generation Adidas player, Espinoza never looked back.

“When a team believes in you that much or a coach or a GM, then you have to go for it. It makes it easier when someone believes in you. A lot of people believed in me when I was younger, so I am always very thankful for that because I worked hard for that.”

And countless have reaped the benefits from what Espinoza was given, then earned like no other.

“The reason for where I am at today is a lot because of him. I am so grateful,” said Davis. “And I hope he sticks around.”

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Eric Vidoni

Great article. Sporting has lost a key element of the soul of the club with him retiring. I see it getting worse with JFR aging out too. I understand people’s aversion to holding on to aging guys. But I can also understand why you want to keep guys like Roger around past his prime.

Kat

With how depleted and disconnected this group is this season, I think letting both Roger and Zusi go last season cost a lot more than anticipated in terms of the locker room and having a united mentality. Yes, they can’t play forever, but Roger was already at the league minimum, publicly wanted to stay, and unlike Zus still saw the pitch regularly. Considering where we are now, paying ~90k for a guy who was a longstanding part of the heart of the team seems like an absolute steal.

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