[MLS SPOTLIGHT] For Rapids defender Kosuke Kimura, a match against Real Salt Lake is about more than regional rivalry and a showdown of the last two MLS Cup champions. The game at Rio Tinto Stadium (9 p.m. ET, Direct Kick) is another test of the determination his father instilled in him while growing up in Japan. He will lace up his shoes, pull on his jersey, and for a few hours block out the worries and concerns that have beset him constantly since an 9.0 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami laid waste to his native country a month ago.
“People in Japan are so strong,” says Kimura, a native of Kobe who moved away a few years before that city was devastated by a 1995 quake that killed more than 6,000 people. “They’re disciplined and patient. They can rebuild the infrastructure in a normal time. But this is going to be hard.”
Kimura has appeared in TV shows and on videos appealing for aid as Japan tries to recover from the quakes, tsunami, and severe damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Such efforts are natural for him; in addition to helping the Rapids win their first title, he was named as the team’s 2010 Humanitarian of the Year for his community work.
For a few days after the first quake struck on March 11, he didn’t know the fate of his family and relatives. He got word shortly before the start of the season, and was grateful for the news, but each passing day is another test of resolve.
“It’s been tough,” he said Tuesday, upon arrival in Salt Lake City for the RSL match. “My family is OK but still people are out there suffering and it’s not settled down yet, another huge earthquake happened there [Monday]. It’s an on-going thing and it’s not going away. People need money and food and stuff. It’s really tough to watch on TV.”
A few days after winning 2010 MLS Cup with Colorado, Kimura visited his family and relatives in Japan, and received a rock-star welcome. Television and newspaper interviews were a daily staple and he constantly answered questions about American soccer and playing in MLS. As the first Japanese-born MLS player, who studied English intensely on his own to pass an SAT test that could get him into an American college, Kimura emphasizes the changes and adjustment he went through. Culture shock was only part of the transition.
“I gained close to 20 pounds,” he says of his years at Western Illinois University, for which he played from 2003 to 2006. “My college coach [Erik Johnson] was old school, he told me I had to get stronger and lift more. So I did it, and started eating more and more. I gained a lot of weight. The typical Japanese player, we could be the same height, but I’m 15 to 20 pounds heavier. In college, when I got in there, I was about 132 pounds. [He is 5-foot-8, 155 pounds].
“The Japanese players have the skill and all that stuff, but sometimes they can’t keep up with the athleticism or they’re not strong enough to play in a league. It’s a little different soccer compared to Japan. They’re more technical but over 90 minutes, you need more. You can’t just get by with the skill and the speed. You need physical strength, so I don’t know if it matches the typical Japanese player.”
Long before he arrived at Western Illinois, Kimura’s father put him through a rigorous workout of his own.
“My dad, he played soccer and he played handball, he’s a tough guy, too,” he says of Takahiro Kimura. “When I was little, he used to take me to climb up mountains all the time. He say, ‘Kosuke, we going to climb five hours. You’re going to do it. I’m going to help you, but here’s your backpack and you’re going to do it. You have to keep up with me.’
“I didn’t even want to go up the mountains. You know, it was in the summer, and the kids for vacation, we want to go to the beach, and my dad says, ‘Let’s go camping.’ We are so happy but the next day, he says, ‘We go to climb up mountains.’”
He began his climb in the professional ranks near the bottom rung: as a No. 35 overall Supplemental Draft selection. He played mostly in the Reserve Division in his rookie 2007 season, and broke into the first team as a regular a year later. In 2009 he took over as the starting right back. He’s still a novelty; there don’t seem to be any Japanese successors to MLS on the horizon, though national teamers are coming back into favor overseas.
MLS coaches attended a player combine in Japan after MLS Cup but as yet no signings have resulted from this affiliation between the two countries. Japan’s Asian Cup triumph in January persuaded Inter Milan to take Yuto Nagatomo on loan. Nagatomo has faced compatriot Atsuto Uchida of German club Schalke, one of several Japanese players employed by Bundesliga clubs, this month in the Champions League.
“It’s really tough because over there are so many good players fighting for a few positions,” says Kimura. “Nagatomo, he can only play two positions so it’s hard for him to compete with world-class players even though he’s been playing for the national team for a real long time.”
Kimura, 26, knows his team faces a experienced, savvy opponent in RSL. The narrowness of its formation also presents him, and the Rapids, unique problems, particularly since central linchpin Pablo Mastroeni will sit out with a calf injury. “They try to play through the middle,” he says of RSL’s three-pronged attack and triangle in support. “They don’t much use the sides.
“For me, it’s kind of easy to defend but in the middle, they overload every time. That’s a huge problem, so I have to tell my wing to tuck in more and help [Jeff] Larentowicz in the middle. We have other guys who can play in the middle, but missing Pablo will definitely affect us.”
The pride he feels in representing Japan as its only MLS player has sharply intensified over the past month. Every time he steps on the field he proves something to the people in his native country who doubted he’d make it as a pro, and pays homage to his dad as well as their nation.
“‘Never give up, never. Every time try to get through, every time,’” the son quotes the father. “That’s how I got this far. I really appreciate my dad and that definitely took me to here, right now.”