Go West young man.....

Say the name Kosuke Kimura to any fan of Japanese football and you’ll probably draw a blank stare. Kimura is one of the now many Japanese players plying their trade abroad, but his destination is a little different..

Japanese players move to Europe;  Kimura went east instead of west and ended up in a place as far removed from Japan as you’re likely to find – Macomb, Illinois in the USA where he attended Western Illinois University.

In his own words Kimura describes it as, “the middle of nowhere…all there is are corn fields.”

For a boy who born in Kobe and spent most of his life in Yokohama it was a big change and it took some getting used to.

“The first time I got there I had no idea why I went there,” he told Asian Football Feast.

Whilst you might think his lack of English or distance from his family would be his toughest challenge it was in fact something a lot simpler – food.

“Obviously the food wasn’t impressive,” he says, recalling the early days where he had no kitchen.

“The first thing you see is fast food everywhere, the closest thing they had was a Chinese buffet.

“I was just struggling for the first few years actually because I was living in the dorm and I didn’t have a kitchen so I couldn’t cook anything.

“I was eating food at the cafeteria but they didn’t really have good food. So it was kind of tough for me to adjust to that. I can adapt easy so it was no big deal, but food was a big part of it.”

The USA wasn’t always in Kimura’s plans. Like most youngsters growing up, the J. League was what he strived towards.  Getting an opportunity to impress though wasn’t easy, especially as he came from a family that wasn’t well off financially.

“In Japan if you want to really play soccer you have to join the academy system and it costs so much money and my parents didn’t have enough money for that,” he admits.  “Usually it’s only for rich people.”

But there are other ways, and Kimura’s chance came in the form of an open trial for Kawasaki Frontale where more than 500 budding footballers turned up.  The odds were against him, especially after the club announced they would only select three or four to join their squad.   Kimura was one of those three or four.

He recalls that moment: “When I was 14 I took the test and I made it and it made me so happy and I told myself “This is it. For the next three years in high school I’ll give everything I have to make that level””

His time with the Kawasaki youth set up was going well, he even jokes, half seriously, “the coach loved me.”   But there would be a twist.

Kimura developed stress fractures in his foot and he was given two options – have surgery, which was only a 50-50 in terms of a full recovery, or take 10 months off and let it properly heal.   He chose not to risk the surgery and instead opted for 10 months on the sidelines. The time off worked and his foot recovered, but missing 10 months of Football put him right behind the eight ball.  Then in another twist, Kawasaki Frontale was relegated to the second division and costs were cut across the board. Kimura, along with others, were let go.   It was a crushing blow.

“Obviously that killed me because I thought it was my only chance to go pro,” he said.  Kimura wasn’t ready to give up on his dream just yet though.  One of his good friends received a scholarship to attend a College in the USA and play Football and urged Kimura to do the same.  He did.

Kimura, who spoke almost no English, began writing to various Universities across America with what little English he had. Whilst he received some responses, none offered scholarships. A few did offer tryouts, including Western Illinois University.

Kimura spoke to the coach who advised him that he could come, only if he agreed to take an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. Two weeks later Kimura was on a plane bound for Illinois.   He attended the Football team tryouts with a Kuwaiti he met in his ESL class, immediately impressing the coach who told them, “you guys have to come, you guys have to help us.”   And that they did.

Western Illinois University would win three of the next four conference championships and made the prestigious NCAA tournament. Kimura was also named in the All-Conference team in three of his four years.   His coach described him as an “inspiration” to his teammates.   Despite this, it was still regarded as a shock when Colorado selected Kimura at pick 35 in the 2007 MLS Supplemental Draft.   By virtue of that fact he became the first Japanese player to play in the MLS. Kimura felt a responsibility to represent his nation and do it well.

“I felt pressure because as the first Japanese guy, I have to be the good example to the next Japanese player to come into MLS in the future,”

“I felt that responsibility and I think I’ve been doing well.”

Only one thing was on his mind when he was selected, and that was winning.

“When I joined the Rapids, the first thing you think about is winning a championship,” he said.

Championships would have to wait though; his first job was breaking his way into the first team. In his first year he made his debut against Real Salt Lake and was a member of the Rapids’ reserve division championship winning team.  The placed him on a solid grounding and 2008 was a breakout year for the defender, playing 18 games and starting 17 of them, helping the Rapids become one of the best defences in the league.   Kimura has only grown since, playing more games in 2009 (26 games, 21 starts) and scoring his first MLS goal against Real Salt Lake, ironically the team he made his debut against.

By the time 2010 rolled around, Kimura had cemented himself in the side. Whilst stress fractures returned, this time in his left ankle, forcing him to miss six games, he managed 23 games and 21 starts, helping Colorado make the playoffs where he would play a pivotal role.  He would start all four post-season games, but his biggest impact came in the Eastern Conference Final against San Jose. Receiving the ball on the right hand side from a throw in, Kimura whipped in a dangerous cross that found its way into the back of the net.  Despite initially looking like Omar Cummings had got the final touch on it, the goal was awarded to Kimura. Never has he scored such an important goal.   It would prove to be the game winner, enough to see Colorado advance to the MLS Cup against FC Dallas.  Finally the moment Kimura had been dreaming of had arrived, a chance to win the Championship.

Kimura started on the field and was a part of the team that came from 0-1 down at half time to win 2-1 after extra time to clinch their first MLS Championship.  Kimura was over the moon.   “It took me four years but still I got there and it was a little different than anything else,” he recalled.  

“I’ve won many other championships, but this was not just a championship. It was a national championship. And when we won that it was great and it was great to be a part of it.”

Despite all his success in one of the world’s fastest growing leagues, there is still one thing missing from Kimura’s CV, and that is a national team call up. It is still something Kimura desires.   The Copa America presented a fantastic opportunity for players on the fringe, like Kimura, to get selected and show their potential.   With a host of regular national team players unavailable, Kimura was very much in the frame.

“I heard they put me on the list, so if they call me up I’ll go,” he said.

“The tournament will start at the end of July so from now until then they told me they’d come watch my games some time. So I have to keep playing well and see what happens.”

 Unfortunately for Kimura that dream is now dashed, with Japan officially withdrawing from the Copa America in May after they faced difficulties putting a team together, with European clubs refusing to release players for the tournament.   That won’t deter Kimura though; he will keep forging a career in America and keep working hard until that call-up arrives.   It’s the only way he knows.

You can read more from Paul at Asian Football Feast.