July 15, 2013

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Hanging up his Buckeye jersey for the final time following a loss in the 2007 NCAA College Cup final, Roger Espinoza could not have predicted the historic path he was about to embark. From becoming Ohio State’s first World Cup and men’s soccer Olympic product to helping Wigan Athletic to the 2013 Football Association Challenge Cup, many illustrious moments have transpired since Espinoza’s collegiate days in Columbus.

Playing alongside Wigan, Espinoza returned to the Buckeye state to take on Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew in an exhibition game Saturday evening. Reminiscent to his playing days at Ohio State, Espinoza provided an immediate spark, entering the match at the start of the second half and promptly serving a cross to teammate James McCarthy who posted Wigan’s first goal in the 46th minute. Overall, the match concluded in a 2-1 Wigan victory, marking a solid homecoming for the Buckeye native.

“It is very gratifying every time I think of Columbus,” Espinoza said. “I scored my first professional goal here [in 2008, with MLS’ Kansas City], so it definitely brings a lot of memories. And obviously with Ohio State as well. I have a lot of great memories from there. Every time I somehow end up here and it makes me very happy.”

One notable figure in the stands to watch the matchup was Ohio State head coach John Bluem.

Bluem initially took notice of Espinoza’s energetic style of play when he was recruiting him from the junior college ranks. After two seasons with Yavapai College in Phoenix, Espinoza transferred to Ohio State for a season of direction under the Buckeye head coach.

“We only had him for the one season at Ohio State, but he touched all of us,” Bluem said. “To see what he has accomplished and how far he has gone is tremendous.”

Despite the short time spent between the player and coach the mutual impact remains evident. With a strong College Cup run under his belt, Espinoza was drafted 11th overall in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft by the Kansas City Wizards. Following his time with Kansas City, Espinoza transitioned to the English Premier League as a member of Wigan Athletic in January 2013.

“Roger is an absolute professional,” Bluem said.  “He takes care of his body and is always fit. He is also coachable and works hard all the time. There is a tremendous attitude he carries about the opportunity he has to earn a living and take care of his family as a professional player. He’s a special kid.”

Aside from the monetary rewards associated with playing the game he loves, the chance to play in one of the most renowned soccer leagues in the world is something Espinoza does not let go unnoticed.

He is one of just two players from the Big Ten conference to play in the Premier League, joining Indiana’s Juergen Somer who was a goalkeeper with the Queens Park Rangers in 1996-97. Espinoza, however, remains the first field player and first to score a goal.

The leap to MLS and eventually Premiership play is something Espinoza believes was eased by his time spent competing with the Buckeyes in the Big Ten conference.

“The Big Ten is a very competitive and physical league,” Espinoza said. “Then moving onto the MLS, it’s a very physical league too. Playing in England it is again very physical and technique wise it is also very good. I take that from here. I was able to play against tough players and it is no different than the MLS and English Premier League.

“It helps being around good people and good coaches,” he continued. “Just being at a great school for me was a lot.”

In Wigan’s FA Cup win, Espinoza started and played a full 90 minutes vs. Manchester City. The victory came just days after Espinoza’s first goal in the Premiership, the opening score in the Latics’ match with Swansea. Now, even months later, the magnitude of the win is something the Honduras native is still trying to grasp.

“It just came right away and I didn’t get a chance to think about it,” Espinoza said. “Now, looking back it is something that will forever stay with me, my family and the people who know me.”

Along with Bluem, other members of the Ohio State men’s soccer family were in attendance for the matchup Saturday, including two former Buckeyes – Konrad Warzycha and Matt Lampson – who suited up for the Columbus Crew. Some of Espinoza’s teammates from the 2007 squad were also expected to be among the alumni in the stands, marking a reunion of sorts for the Buckeye great.

“Hopefully we get some free time,” Espinoza said before the match. “I’m the guest here, so all my friends can take me wherever they want. I’m not putting pressure on myself. I’ll just say ‘I’m free, let’s go do something.’

“I met some great friends from classes and the soccer team who I still keep in contact with,” Espinoza continued. “It’s something I’ll never forget. I learned a lot from the people here. I always support Ohio State and it is something that will always stay with me.”