Sandy • Fabian Espindola didn’t exactly run right along with the storyline. He insisted that nothing has changed for him with Real Salt Lake this season.
Yet everything looks so different.
Not even a year removed from one of the most miserable starts he could imagine, the fiery Argentine striker is back and better than ever this year — armed with a new long-term contract, a baby boy on the way and a chance to become the team’s all-time leading regular-season scorer when RSL plays Chivas USA at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
“Having a boy is a huge deal for me,” Espindola said. “But I’m always like this. Just this time, things are going right. I’m scoring. But nothing different.”
Certainly, Espindola is always friendly and talkative — never mind hard-working, with his wild mane of dark hair emphasizing his furious pace — and probably the most demonstrably passionate player on the team. If he has a sleeve, his emotions are all over it.
But the contrast between last year and this year is stark.
Last season had barely begun when Espindola missed several golden scoring chances in a loss to Mexico’s Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League final and was so distraught that coach Jason Kreis did not even take him to the team’s Major League Soccer game in Portland three days later.
Then, in his first game back, Espindola watched teammate and fellow Argentine Javier Morales suffer a gruesome ankle injury when he was cut down by a ruthless tackle from behind. Espindola picked up an injury, missed the next two games and did not score his second goal of the season until June 4.
Boy, has this year been different.
Team officials said they have sensed a greater feeling of security and trust in Espindola, particularly since he signed a new four-year contract in the offseason, instead of a more lucrative offer from Tijuana in Mexico.
“I came back here for a lot of reasons,” he said, “the team, the guys. I like to be here, to live here. It wasn’t just money. … I’m happy here.”
Espindola has scored in both of RSL’s games — both victories — to rank among the league leaders, and he took the shot whose rebound off the goalkeeper fell to teammate Luis Gil for a goal against the New York Red Bulls last weekend.
What’s more, his length-of-the-field dash to dispossess the legendary Thierry Henry almost at the goal line in that game (albeit after the mistake of a shanked corner kick) thrilled fans and perfectly illustrated the increased commitment and dedication the team believes Espindola has been showing.
“He’s somebody we’re really trying to embrace,” Kreis said.
Having begun his career as a mercurial third forward behind Yura Movsisyan and Robbie Findley, the 26-year-old Espindola has grown into a dependable first-choice starter — ever more comfortable, and the perfect striker partner for Alvaro Saborio at the top of the team’s 4-4-2 formation.
In fact, Espindola managed to finally shake free from his early struggles last year to post the most productive season of his five-year career with RSL — 10 goals, three assists — and now needs only one more goal to tie Findley as the team’s all-time leading scorer in regular-season MLS games, with 29 goals.
“I don’t think anybody works harder,” general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “And I don’t think anybody cares more. … Fabian has really grown up in his time with us.”
All the way to fatherhood.
While several of his teammates have young children already — Morales’ wife just delivered their second son this week, for example — Espindola is becoming a father for the first time. His wife, Barbara, is due to deliver in May a boy they will name Jayko.
Espindola is so excited that he celebrated a goal against the Red Bulls by tucking the ball under the front of his shirt as if he were pregnant and blowing a kiss to his wife in the stands.
“It’s all new,” he said, beaming. “I’m going to be a dad.”
So, see? A few things have changed.
RSL’s Fabian Espindola has blossomed in his years with RSL:
Year Games Goals Assists Minutes
2007 12 2 2 602
2008 12 5 0 642
2009 22 3 3 1,511
2010 22 6 2 1,514
2011 27 10 3 2,096
2012 2 2 0 180
RSL vs. Chivas USA
Saturday, 7 p.m.