Playoffs in Profile: The many faces of Fabián Espíndola

How a garden in Argentina gave rise to RSL's menacing striker

As the MLS Cup playoffs continue, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.

In the fourth installment, senior content producer Simon Borg delves into what makes Real Salt Lake striker Fabián Espíndola tick and the reasons for his career season in 2011. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week

Where Fabián Espíndola comes from in Argentina, it’s a man’s greatest accomplishment.

No, it’s not becoming the first-ever player from his hometown to wear the shirt of legendary Boca Juniors. It’s not starting and scoring a goal as a teenager in La Bombonera, home of Boca. And it’s not touching the hand of Argentina’s national hero, Diego Armando Maradona. The Real Salt Lake forward has done all of the above, but they simply don’t rank as high.

In Villa de Merlo, in the province of San Luis to the west of Buenos Aires, nothing beats the day you open the doors to your own home. Unlike in the United States, the land of balloon, subprime and a variety of other mortgages, in the town of 10,000 people from where Espíndola hails, you have to put up the money before you get the house. Today he has it.

It was especially significant for the 26-year-old Espíndola.

During his childhood in San Luis he worked several odd jobs, helping his uncles in construction, working on local farms and doing plenty of gardening and planting trees in homes belonging to “people who had more money." He made a pittance – his dad warned him to “study, study or you’ll die of hunger” – but he felt there had to be more to life.

“There was no money and I had to work but I said, ‘It couldn’t be like this,’” Espíndola says. “I wanted something more for me and my family. So when I’m on the soccer field, I’m thankful for being there instead of working for two pesos back where I’m from. Now I have a garden and everything in my house. I see the kids working there in my house and I see myself.”

That climb from toiling in gardens for others to now having one of his own involved a long, tough road of scratching and clawing every step of the way. It goes a long way in explaining the intensity that RSL fans see on Espíndola’s face on a weekly basis: the fierce glances, the confrontations with defenders, the never-say-die runs chasing down every ball on the field.

He takes his job so seriously that he willfully secluded himself for several days after the CONCACAF Champions League final in April. It left the Argentine forward distraught because he felt he was responsible for the loss. Some may have raised an eyebrow at the extreme reaction, but Espíndola doesn’t care.

“Other people don’t feel it that way, but I do. Soccer is the best thing ever for me,” he says. “I needed to be alone. To lose a final as important as that, where they give you a ticket to the Club World Cup, it hurts.”

“I don’t think there’s anybody who takes defeat as hard as Fabi,” says RSL midfielder Will Johnson. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself and he lives up to pressure all the time and keeps himself honest and humble. And when he doesn’t play up to his potential, he’s hard on himself. I respect that.”

The Ticket Out

No one ever made it out of San Luis to play professional soccer. But Espíndola calls himself “privileged” that a passing Boca Juniors scout noticed something special about the spunky 14-year-old with the fine left foot playing for a local side named San Martín. He was invited to a tryout in Buenos Aires proper – a “jungle of cement,” as Espíndola calls it.

“I was little and didn’t know what it was to be alone. It cost me a lot,” Espíndola says. “When I had the tryouts, I kept hearing all my friends from back home saying I didn’t have a chance. But I didn’t want to go back there and prove them right.”

So he battled 450 other trialists in that first test and survived. But that was only the beginning. In the revolving door of talents that is the Boca Juniors system, that tryout marked the first day of nearly seven years of fierce competition for Espíndola to cling to his dream.

“It’s tough to be in the Boca inferiores,” Espíndola says, using the term for what youth systems are called in Spanish-speak countries. “There’s a lot of pressure and it’s a big part of what left its mark on me. It’s hard to fight when you’re just a kid. But from when I was 14 until the age of 19, I gave it my all until I finally made it.”

In only his second start, at the age of 19, La Bombonera washed Espíndola in raucous adulation after he scored in a league match against Arsenal de Sarandí. But it wasn’t long before the dream of playing for the club that his family worshipped came to an end.

Boca told Espíndola they were cutting him loose just before he turned 21. He had asked to be released months before, realizing that chances for playing time were slim behind the likes of Martín Palermo and Guillermo Barros Schelotto at the height of Boca’s South American domination.

The cutthroat talent machine that was Boca chewed Espíndola up for more than six years of his youth and spit him out, just like that. But the experience made him ruthless. He was again left to fend for himself. That’s when Real Salt Lake came into the picture.

Analyze This

“It was the look I saw in his eye,” RSL manager Jason Kreis says of his first meeting with Espíndola. “I saw a person that felt he had a lot to prove and a person that looked very, very hungry to take a positive step in his career.”

It wasn’t just the look. But there was an exchange in that summer of 2007 that Kreis remembers to this day.

“I told him, 'We’re going to play Boca in another month or two,' and his eyes lit up, and he said something in Spanish to the agent who was translating,” recounts Kreis. “’He wants to kill them.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And the agent asked him again and he said, ‘Literally, he’d love to kill them.’ He didn’t just say it in a sporting way.”

In his first year and a half with RSL, Espíndola was fiery and combustible. Just as he would try to get under defenders’ skin, they were also prickling him and often times he would react, accumulating three yellow card cautions and one red card.

Maybe RSL got more passion than they bargained for, including in training. A rough tackle earned RSL defender Nat Borchers two weeks of silent treatment from Espíndola and it took Johnson a couple of months before he warmed up to him again after a separate confrontation on the practice field.

“When guys first come on the team, I don’t think they understand him,” says Borchers. “But after you’ve been around him a while, you understand he just wants to win. It’s nothing personal.”

At Boca, they called Espíndola loquillo (a little crazy), while RSL defender Jámison Olave opts for the affectionate loco (crazy). The latest nickname assigned in jest is “Guadaña” after a Colombian telenovela character who bears a resemblance in the scowl and long hair. There’s clearly a common theme in the nicknames.

But for all the fun had with Espindola’s mood swings, Kreis and RSL were not sure they were going to bring him back in 2009. In fact, Espíndola moved to a club in Venezuela, but when the paychecks stopped coming in, he rang up Kreis personally.

“We were not quite sure about Fabián,” Kreis said. “We saw all the good and we saw the potential which we knew was through the roof. But could we manage the emotional side of things?”

Although Kreis, who had a mean streak of his own as a player in MLS, enjoys Espíndola’s intensity and aggressiveness on the field, he wanted less brooding, a little more smiling and an injection of positivity from his forward. And change he did. But all in due time. “Maturation,” is what Espíndola calls it.

“I’m a little more calm now,” admits Espíndola, who scored a career-high 10 goals in 2011. “Before, I was a little crazy, but now I’ve learned to calm down. At times, my passion got the best of me and it was understanding that fighting with other guys on the field and getting into problems was not helping me, it was hurting me instead.”

“Puro Corazón"

Don’t let the menacing long hair fool you – he only grew out his hair in the last couple of years to see how it looked. When not provoked by defenders and testing his coaches and teammates, Espíndola is by all accounts loyal and noble.

Some even consider him the personal bodyguard of RSL’s Argentine playmaker Javier Morales. That was never more evident than when Espíndola was the lone RSL player left standing over his compatriot when the gruesome nature of Morales’ broken ankle set in against Chivas USA earlier this season. Espíndola showed up at his friend’s house during the recovery more than any other teammate.

“Fabi is puro corazón [all heart], as we say in Argentina,” Morales said. “His first instinct and what he really feels comes out, but it’s never out of malice. Many times we’ve fought on the field because I didn’t make a run or pass him a particular ball. It’s pure emotion. When things pass, everything’s back to normal.”

How’s this for impulse: The 2-year-old son of a Mexican immigrant in Salt Lake City tragically dies choking. The family was an acquaintance of Espíndola. Once he got word, the RSL forward was on the mourning family’s doorstep ready to share in the pain and help with cash they didn’t have.

It’s the side his teammates rarely get to see. Like, for example, the Espíndola who enjoys horseback riding with his sister back home in Argentina at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he also tends to the few animals his dad still keeps.

The same man who goes 100 miles an hour on the field enjoys the slow-beat Argentine cumbia music. And his Skype sessions with his family are enjoyed with a cup of Argentine mate tea in hand. He catches up with his mom Susanna, who’s recovering from hernia surgery, and his dad, Edgar, who works for the local municipality managing the artesian quarters where tourists in San Luis get their souvenirs.

Then there’s Espíndola’s sister, the 18-year-old Estefanía – the person he adores, by his own admission. She’s heading to college in nearby Córdoba and it fills him with pride that he can help her and his family by sending money home.

“I never saw her grow up after I went to Boca [he was 14, she was six] and I’m always sad for that,” Espíndola says. “But I’m able to help them now.”

Real Action Hero

Although Espíndola himself finished two years short of a high school diploma, he’s a self-taught man. The consensus at RSL is that he has a knack for languages, picking up English better than his other native Spanish-speaking teammates. His preferred learning tool? Movies with subtitles.

There’s also a little action movie hero in Espíndola, as his teammate Johnson found out when riding in the Argentine’s black Nissan Armada.

“We’re driving to training this one day and I’m sitting in the back,” Johnson recalls. “We hit our exit and it was under construction and it was going to take us 10 to 15 minutes to get through.

“What Fabi does is he hooks a right hand over the rocks and goes completely off-road for 100 yards, skipping past all the lights. Everyone was quiet in the car. It felt just like being in a movie. … We were the first ones at practice.”

The action doesn’t get more intense than MMA, however, a sport that Espíndola enjoys watching with his wife. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Espíndola has even taken up boxing classes and has challenged the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Olave to a sparring match.

Then again he’s always been the underdog fighter, “the guy you want to take in a dark alley with you,” says Johnson. Or, even better, take with you on the field in the playoffs.

The end of this latest postseason will lead to yet another crux decision for RSL as they enter two consecutive option years on the Espíndola contract. Although it’s out of his control, the player makes it abundantly clear that he wants to stay. He’s become too fond of this RSL group.

And while Kreis recognizes he’s a very important player and major contributor, he still says, “It’s all there to play for still,” as any coach might be expected to say about the future.

In the meantime, Espíndola doesn’t take a single minute as a pro for granted. Three things in particular continue to fuel his passion when he’s wearing that RSL No. 7 jersey:

“First, the sport has given me so much. It’s given me my daily bread and gives me a chance to maintain my family,” he says. “Second, I hate losing – that’s what they taught me as a young kid. And third, the people who go to see you. I don’t want to deprive those who support the team. Even if it’s a loss, you have to leave everything on the field.”