Espinoza, 25, suffered a sprained right ankle in Sporting Kansas City's 1-1 draw at Crew Stadium. The injury is expected to keep the central midfielder out for the next 2-4 weeks, according to a release issued by the club on Monday.
“I’m relieved that my injury is not a long-term injury,” Espinoza told the Kansas City Star on Tuesday.
He isn't the only one. Espinoza's knock impacts club, country and player like few setbacks incurred in MLS this year.
In this instance, the country shoulders most of the burden. Honduras can't afford to wait a couple of weeks for its energetic midfielder to return to the fold. It must now devise a way to navigate its way through a difficult pair of fixtures in Panama on Friday and at home to Canada on Tuesday without him.
Espinoza's absence makes that job harder. He ties everything together for Hondurans with his creativity (yes, he bears a bit more responsibility in that department for his country) and his work rate in the middle of the park. Other players can and must fill the void, but Espinoza's injury could mean the difference between a place in the Hexagonal and a spot on the couch to watch others compete for a berth in the World Cup.
Similar concerns likely haunt Sporting manager Peter Vermes in the medium-term, but the situation isn't as dire for him at this stage. Espinoza can take two weeks to return to fitness. That's not a problem. It'd be nice to have him in the mix to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference and ward off Chicago's advances, but it isn't compulsory with Graham Zusi available to drop into midfield and Bobby Convey and Jacob Peterson poised to fill any wide vacancy.
Those remedial measures would start to wobble if the injury persists as the postseason commences. Sporting simply isn't the same team without Espinoza in midfield. His box-to-box presence permits Zusi to operate in more space on either the right or the left wing (depending on the matchup and the time in the game) and supplies the extra dollop of quality that Júlio César and Paulo Nagamura cannot muster.
Espinoza is exactly the sort of player who will gut out a match half-fit if he isn't all the way back by the time the playoffs begin, but Sporting desperately needs him in top form to advance through the Eastern Conference. If he isn't at 100 percent, the chances of a second title in Kansas City this year decrease substantially.
From a long-term perspective, Espinoza may want to ponder whether he should take any field at less than full fitness before the end of the MLS season. His contract expires at the end of the year. Several suitors at home (Sporting) and abroad (English Premier League side and notable Honduran haven Wigan Athletic, for starters) have emerged to compete for his services. Unless Espinoza accepts a below-market contract (highly unlikely given his steadily increasing value) or Sporting decides to hand him a Designated Player deal (and the league would have a few stern words to share about that idea), he will likely change clubs during the winter and receive a hefty raise for doing so.
With a move likely on tap, Espinoza must do all he can to preserve his market value. It would make little sense to diminish the hard work done at last year's Gold Cup, this year's Olympics and in MLS by accelerating his recovery time and creating more serious concerns about his health with a setback over the next few weeks. He will no doubt feel compelled to make every effort to shrug off a blow that he initially thought led to a broken ankle, but he must also protect his own interests with a bumper contract on the way sooner rather than later.
Most of the problems would dissipate if Espinoza manages to shrug off the injury and take his usual place in the Sporting midfield three in a couple of weeks. His productive return wouldn't come soon enough to help his country, but it may just prevent the impact of that unfortunate twist from expanding to club and personal interests as well.
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