Jhon Espinoza is smiling in a restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. The Chicago Fire defender is watching a video of himself scoring a goal. Not just any goal, but one scored during the quarterfinals of the 2019 U-20 FIFA World Cup.
Watch the first 20 seconds of the above video and you will see it, the eventual game-winner against the U.S. Men’s U-20 team that sent the U-20 Ecuador side into the semifinals of the competition.
“It was a unique moment,” Espinoza said through his agent and translator Esteban Báez. “That’s what all players want in their career. I can remember everything from that moment. It was amazing.”
While Espinoza would have likely found his way to the MLS at some point, that goal, combined with his stellar play as team captain during the tournament, lifted the Ecuadorian’s status in the soccer world like no other.
But before you look at where Espinoza is today and what his goals are for tomorrow, one must understand his journey from the very start.
Espinoza was born and raised in the city of Guayaquil, the largest in Ecuador. At eight years of age, he joined the Alfaro Moreno Academy in the northern part of the city, his first taste of the path toward a professional soccer career.
But it was not until he left his friends and family to go play in the capital city of Quito that he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to becoming a professional soccer player.
“I was 14 years old and I started to practice and play with professional players,” Espinoza said. “I enjoyed playing with them and my capacity to play was the same as theirs. That is when I knew I could make it [as a professional].”
Espinoza signed with second division team Deportivo Cuenca just three years later. This is where he met his agent Esteban Báez, who helped Espinoza sign with his first team in Serie A, Ecuador’s top division.
That team was S.D. Aucas, which Espinoza signed with in the middle of the 2017-18 season. He instantly became a starter and even assisted his first top-division goal during that season. The teenager was beginning to make a name for himself within the Ecuador national team camp.
Unfortunately, Espinoza suffered an injury that kept him off the field for two months leading up to the 2019 U-20 FIFA World Cup and put doubt into even making that U-20 Ecuador side. But not only did head coach Jorge Célico select Espinoza for the team, he also made the defender the captain.
“I couldn’t believe it”, Espinoza said of his captaincy, “Because I had a meniscus injury I was wondering if the coach would even take me to the World Cup. I was very happy, just laughing all the time, even when I was alone. It was just very exciting.”
You know the rest of the story. Ecuador made the semifinals of that 2019 U-20 FIFA World Cup, their best-ever finish, and Espinoza not only made a name for himself within his own country but across the Western Hemisphere.
Journey to “Beautiful” Chicago
“It’s the best city I’ve ever known.” High praise coming from Jhon Espinoza, who only moved here a few months ago. “It’s a nice city, a very beautiful city.”
When asked if he has explored any of the over 200 neighborhoods that make Chicago famous: “Not yet. There is not enough time to know all the neighborhoods, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far. I did like looking at the snow.”
We will see if Espinoza’s high praise of the notoriously brutal Chicago winter will remain in the years ahead, but that is for another day. The focus is now on this current Chicago Fire season, which has seen Espinoza make three appearances to this point. While he has enjoyed his time in Chicago so far, his journey to the Windy City was anything but smooth.
“[The Fire] started contacting [S.D. Aucas] in February of 2020,” agent Esteban Báez said, “but it took until December of last year to close the deal.” Why did it take so long? “There just weren’t that many matches to scout him last year.”
Báez has a point. In an unprecedented year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were not as many matches to watch Espinoza play in. But the Fire were always high on the young defender and eventually closed the deal that brought him to MLS.
“We Will Make the Playoffs”
Even though he is in a new country, playing in a new league and for a new team, Jhon Espinoza is happy with his choice to play for the Fire. “It was an easy decision. That is what I wanted. I want to play in other leagues and other levels to continue to improve professionally.”
Espinoza’s ultimate goal? “To play in Europe one day. Ideally for Real Madrid or Manchester United.”
While he has made the next step in his career, Espinoza is 100% focused on improving as much as he can individually while helping this Fire side get to where they belong.
“I think we are going to make the playoffs this year,” Espinoza says of this 2021 Fire team. I had to double-check with Esteban just to make sure I heard correctly. “Yep, absolutely”, Espinoza reiterated.
It was great to hear the confidence in Espinoza’s voice — especially as a Fire fan myself — but the double-take in response to that statement was certainly warranted.
At the time of the interview, the Fire had lost three of their first four matches, accumulating only one point. A win against Inter Miami a couple of weeks later was the club’s first since October and remains the only win of the season so far.
“We are working hard to reverse the results,” Espinoza said. “We think we are playing well at times, but we know we have to start winning games. But yes, I think we are going to make the playoffs.”
The source of Espinoza’s confidence? The top leaders the Fire have in the dressing room. “We have a lot of great leaders. The most instrumental for me so far have been Gastón Giménez, [Francisco] Calvo, Bobby Shuttleworth, Johan [Kappelhof]. Just very serious, professional players.”
That is not to say there are not some light-hearted moments. “We do have a lot of joking around,” Espinoza said. “The entire team likes to have fun and laugh, to make jokes. We have very good team chemistry.”
Learning While Competing
Espinoza decided to come to MLS to further develop and advance his career. He eventually wants to make it to the professional ranks in Europe but knows he has much to learn in Chicago.
“Everything I’m learning here, I will take with me for the rest of my career,” Espinoza said. “I like this league and this team because I spend time with professionals, some who played in Europe. I now see how professional they are so I’m realizing what it takes to make it to Europe.”
One of those top professionals is the Fire’s starting right-back Boris Sekulić, who has arguably been the Fire’s player of the year so far. When asked about his relationship with the Serbian-born defender, Espinoza does not hide his competitive nature.
“I came [to Chicago] to be a starter. He’s a teammate and we’re professional with each other, but he is my competition.”
Head coach Raphael Wickey is spoken highly of by Espinoza who calls the Swiss, “a very good coach that is always trying to help his players get better.”
Espinoza, however, wants to take that next step: “I think I’m ready to be a starter.” When asked what he needs to do to become the starter? “That decision is up to the coach.”
Espinoza continues, “I just want to be on the field to help. My position is right-back but if the coach wants to play me as a right-winger or wherever, I’m ready to play.”
Espinoza’s three appearances this season have seen him play both in a right-back and right-wing-back position. His pace, combined with his technical ability, should see the 22-year old get more minutes as the season wears on.
How long will that season go? I had to ask just once more. “Yes,” Espinoza says without hesitation, “we will make the playoffs.” Who knows? Maybe Espinoza will be in a position once again to send his team to a semifinal.