JOHANNESBURG – Raised in the USA: Roger Espinoza is an important piece in Sporting Kansas City's plans for the future. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
When the US men's national team took the rain-soaked, Sun Life Stadium field against Honduras for their recent friendly in Florida, there may have been 11 players starting in USA uniforms, but there were 12 who had help from the United States in making their soccer dreams come true.
The 12th player, and the only one wearing a Honduran uniform, was Roger Espinoza. One of the Catrachos' best players that night, Espinoza has spent more than half his life growing up and playing soccer in the United States.
During those years, he has made the transformation from young immigrant who didn't speak English and grew homesick when he first arrived to a professional soccer player who has realized many of his dreams, becoming an inspiration for so many immigrants who have followed.
"Everybody in the world knows about the United States, even as a little kid," Espinoza said. "Especially in Honduras, and all Latin countries, coming to the US is a dream.
"Nothing comes easy, but if you work hard here you know stuff's going to happen for you. That's the good thing about living here. If you work hard here you're going to accomplish your dreams."
Espinoza's American dream began a decade before ever setting foot on US soil. It began in 1986, when his father Anibal left Honduras for the United States in search of a better life for his family. Roger, less than a year old at the time, was left behind in Honduras, along with the rest of the family.
It would take 10 years for Anibal to earn the green card status that would allow him to bring his family to the United States, a period of time that saw him make just one visit to Honduras, when Roger was four. Roger couldn't remember the visit, or the soccer ball his father brought him as a present, but the phone conversations the two shared helped forge a father-son bond that would strengthen once Roger and the rest of his family made the trip from the coastal city of Puerto Cortes to Denver, Colorado.
Though the family was re-united, the reunion wasn't quite perfect. Roger struggled to settle into his new home, in part because of the language barrier he faced, but also because of the absence of the sport he loved.
"Growing up in Honduras, on the streets it's all about soccer," Espinoza said. "The first six months I lived in Denver, I didn't see anybody in the streets playing soccer."
Even though his family was in a better situation, the yearning to play soccer made Espinoza homesick, making transition tougher. Things changed once he was introduced to a local club team and found a way into the club soccer scene.
That discovery changed everything. He was not only able to play in an organized structure, but Espinoza was also able to learn English more quickly, also realizing the importance of doing well in school to help him keep playing the sport.
Espinoza's next steps were the same as some fortunate, hard-working immigrants have been able to take. He played junior college for national power Yavapi before earning a move to Ohio State, where he helped lead the Buckeyes to the NCAA Championship Final in his first season.
After one season at Ohio State, Espinoza impressed scouts enough to earn a Generation adidas contract offer from Major League Soccer. As much as he wanted to stay in school and earn a college degree, the lure of professional soccer was too strong for a player who grew up fantasizing about one day turning pro.
The decision turned out to perfect. As a rookie, Espinoza wound up seeing a considerable playing time for the then Kansas City Wizards in 2008. He had his share of growing pains adapting to MLS, but did well enough to catch the eye of Honduras manager Reinaldo Rueda, who called him up for the Honduran national team the following winter.
Playing for Honduras was a long-time dream for Espinoza, but that didn't stop him from considering the idea of playing for the United States. Having also received his US citizenship in 2008, Espinoza felt like he owed something to the country that gave him so much, the country he rooted for even as a child growing up in Honduras.
"I definitely did think about (playing for the United States)," Espinoza said. "I remember watching the US in the World Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2006. I remember being upset about the United States losing to Germany, and rooting for the US that day.
"It's not just me. All Honduran people root for the US. All the Hondurans who live here (in the United States), when Honduras isn't in the World Cup, root for the United States.
"I thought about (playing for the United States), but the opportunity didn't come. I had mixed feelings, but I'm happy to be with Honduras now. I always want the US to do well and win when they're not playing against us."
Espinoza admits that when he does play against the United States, it is an emotional experience. It's the country that helped him realize his dreams, but he also feels a bond with his native Honduras and his teammates.
Playing for Honduras also helped him realize perhaps the biggest dream he ever had: to one day play in the World Cup. The first World Cup he could remember watching was in 1994, when the United States hosted. He spent the next three World Cups rooting for the US, in part because Honduras hadn't qualified for the event in his lifetime. The 1982 Honduran team was the last to qualify, a drought that ended when, in a CONCACAF qualifier for the 2010 tournament, the US tied Costa Rica on a last-minute, Jonathan Bornstein goal, helping Honduran clinch its own World Cup spot.
Childhood dream: Roger Espinoza (right) accomplished his goal and participated in Honduras' 2010 World Cup team. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Espinoza was in Kansas City on that historic night, nursing an injury, but celebrating the moment. He wasn't just happy for his native country. He also fully realized that it meant there was a chance he could eventually play in a World Cup.
Eight months later, Espinoza was singing the Honduran national anthem in Nelspruit, South Africa, about to face off against Alexis Sanchez and Chile. And Espinoza wasn't just on the team, he was on the starting lineup.
"It's what you would imagine, and beyond," Espinoza said of playing in the World Cup. "It was amazing. Some people cry, some people don't. I didn't cry but I can tell you I got very emotional.
"It was a dream come true. It's all you work for as a little kid. You start remembering everything going back to the beginning. Your family always being there for you. People telling you that you're going to make it. Waking up early to go to practice, studying in school. All the injuries and games.
"It all comes back. You remember it all. It's the biggest tournament in the world and everybody's watching. You think about that and then you realize it's time to play a game."
Espinoza's story has become a well-known one in US's Honduran community. He's become a role model, a badge of honor he wears with pride. He rarely misses a chance to tell young, aspiring Latino players he meets that they too can work hard and experience some of the same things he has.
"There's tons of kids from Honduras who have come the same way I came," Espinoza said. "When they ask for tips I tell them exactly what I did and I hope they can do something similar, or do even better than me.
"I always tell them if they keep working hard and don't get into trouble, they can reach their dreams. When you look at players like Ramon Nunez and Andy Najar, players who have taken the same path, it's something for kids to try and follow. Maybe not to play pro, but even to get a college degree."
While he has already lived a lifetime worth of dreams, Espinoza is just 24 - enjoying continued success in a blossoming career. While he hasn't forgotten what it took to accomplish so much, he also realizes just how lucky he's been. He can't help but think about what might have been had his father never come to the United States, and he hadn't followed suit a decade later.
"My brother says I still would have been a pro but I couldn't tell you," Espinoza said. "I say I would have been a pro, but you never know. There aren't as many opportunities in Honduras and every single kid has the same dream. If you're not a pro at the age of 17 or 18 you missed your opportunity, but [not] if you're in the United States.
"In Honduras there are millions of players who try to turn pro and coaches don't even look at you," Espinoza said. "Players there have to go through so much, and come from having nothing to make it. When I look at my (Honduras) teammates I know that they have had a tougher road to get here than I have."
Espinoza will never know how his life might have been had he never left Honduras, but what he does know is he couldn't be happier than he is right now. He has developed into an important player for Sporting Kansas City, has emerged as a regular starter for Honduras, and has realized the dreams he carried with him when he made that fateful trip from Honduras to the United States more than a dozen years ago.
"I think the American dream is happening for me right now, and happening for my family," Espinoza said. "We came here for a better opportunity and the opportunity is there for us and we've taken full advantage of it."