By MIKE TAKEUCHI
Tap. Tap. Tap. Whomp! Alan Nakazawa can remember the rhythmic bumps and then the ensuing bass drum-like thump like it was yesterday. Every day, as regular as the birds singing in the trees above their Palos Verdes Estates home, he and his wife Christine heard their own personal symphony courtesy of their younger son Kyle. Only the sound they heard was a mastery of an instrument of a different kind—the soccer ball.
And as Al watched his son bounce balls off his knees, and then blast the ball through a makeshift goal, he thought that maybe, just maybe his son might have a chance to buck the long odds and become a professional soccer player.
At the time, Kyle Nakazawa was five years old.
Flash forward 17 years to May 2 of this year, where a mere 15 miles from the family home he grew up in, Kyle, now fully grown to nearly six feet tall and 165 pounds, took the pitch at the Home Depot Center to make his Major League Soccer (MLS) debut in front of his family friends, and 15,453 fans. Entering the game in the 61st minute for the Philadelphia Union, he found himself standing across from U.S. World Cup team members Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle along with the rest of his opponents, the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“When I took the field, I was realizing my lifelong dream of being a pro soccer player,” the 22-year-old said. “Because even when I was a kid, I knew that’s what I wanted to be. But the older I got the more I realized how rare it is. It is something that motivated me to work harder and dedicate what I was doing to finally get there. To be in this spot now is pretty special. But I think that it’s just the beginning.”
Kyle, who has since started four matches at midfield for the Union, could be called an overnight success story 18 years in the making. Alan said that his son displayed a work ethic early in life.
“In his younger years, even if Kyle had already practiced, he would be out there working on his foot skills by himself,” his dad said. “His mom and I never pushed him—he just went out there and did it on his own.”
Kyle caught the eye of longtime southern California soccer guru Joe Flanagan, the current head coach of the Cal State Dominguez Hills program. Flanagan tutored him then and continues to be his mentor to this day. He also credited his brother Kenny, an accomplished surfer, who set the example for him to concentrate on just one thing. The singular focus paid off early, when one of the most prestigious development programs in the world came calling.
Holland-based Ajax (pronounced eye-ox) Academy invited him to train with them in the fall of 2001. The program, which was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine, has developed Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez, as well as several members of the current Netherlands World Cup squad among several dozen other professionals playing in Europe.
While Kyle gained a worthwhile experience learning from an international perspective, it also trained his parents for the inevitability of their son leaving home to play.
“No parent wants their child to be away for too long,” Alan Nakazawa said. “But it was a great experience for Kyle not only in terms of soccer, but in terms of life experiences as well.”
The time in another country expanded his horizons to become curious about his own origins. Kyle was especially interested about Japan—a country that made up half his ethnic identity, but one his grandfather was very familiar with. After serving in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during WWII (his wife Alice was interned at Manzanar and his brother Karl was in the 442nd Nisei Division.) he and his wife lived in Tokyo during the U.S. Occupation and reconstruction of the country. Here, Kyle’s father was born in 1951 before the family moved to Gardena, Calif. Al started an importing and exporting business in Los Angeles, in a place that he still works at today.
While Al stressed the importance of maintaining culture to his children, they in turn passed it onto their offspring. Alan said that it was his father that instilled the cultural lessons to the grandchildren.
“He was hugely influenced by his grandfather in recognizing the Japanese side of his family,” Alan said. “He did a lot of research including constructing a family tree, and then took the grandchildren to Japan.”
“I remember stories like when my dad won a (Nellie J.) Oliver Award (an honor given to outstanding Japanese American athletes) for swimming, my grandpa filled in the blanks,” Kyle said. “Those stories not only tell me about my family and where I came from, but they define who I am.”
When he was 13, Kyle got a first hand look at where his ancestors came from. Following the steps of his older brother and cousins the previous year, Kyle and three other cousins accompanied their grandfather on a trip to Japan. The group went from the northern island of Hokkaido, through the main body of Honshu, all the way down to the southern island of Kyushu. Meeting family, visiting gravesites, and learning about their family’s samurai ancestry created a lasting impression upon him.
“Both of my parents educated me in terms of the Japanese influence on my dad’s side, and the European background of my mom’s heritage,” Kyle said. “I was already proud of my heritage, but this trip really let me experience things firsthand. That trip will always be with me.”
“I thought that this was the best way for them to actually learn about their family,” Al Nakazawa said.
The continuing impression of his ethnic identity worked its way into soccer, where he liked a player with whom he could identify with—UCLA’s Ryan Futagaki—a player who he later became friends with.
“Since he wasn’t a big player, Ryan was a great role model,” Alan said. “Ryan overcame his lack of size, by playing very tenaciously. I think it had a positive effect on Kyle when he was a teenager.”
His talent and drive was recognized, because he was recruited to train with the Under-17 National Team while attending the Edison Academy in Bradenton, Florida in 2003. The team, which included current U.S. National Team striker Jozy Altidore, placed fifth in the U-17 World Cup held in Peru in 2005. While Kyle scored two goals and had an assist, his coach John Hackworth saw blossoming potential.
“When watching him play, we noticed that he had excellent vision, was creative, and could improvise with the ball,” Hackworth said. “He more than held his own with the other players.”
Upon his early high school graduation, with several schools to choose from, Kyle followed in Futagaki’s footsteps to UCLA. He enrolled early to get a head start on joining a program that has had National Team players like Carlos Bocanegra, Benny Feilhaber, and Jonathan Bornstein on its roster.
“UCLA has become a great program that is recognized around the country,” Kyle said. “I wanted to be a part of a great tradition.”
Over a four-year Bruins career, Nakazawa scored 21 goals and tallied 26 assists while earning All-American status in his senior season. The team reached the NCAA playoffs four times, including an appearance in the 2006 NCAA College Cup championship game, where his team fell to UCSB 2-1. Despite the numerous accolades, he said that the best part of playing at UCLA wasn’t about the hardware.
“Playing with Brian Perk, David Estrada, and Michael Stephens…all those guys…was an incredible experience,” Kyle said. “We never worried about the next day; we stayed in the moment and enjoyed the present. And playing for Coach (Jorge) Salcedo made us all better players and better people.”
Because he enrolled early as a freshman, Kyle was able to obtain his Bachelor’s Degree in History early so he would be ready when he was selected by the expansion team Union on Jan. 25 along with UCLA teammates Perk and Amobi Okugo. Here, he was welcomed by a familiar face, Hackworth—now an assistant coach with the team.
“The whole process has been 100 miles-an-hour,” Kyle said. “We had two and a half months of preseason training in North Carolina, Florida, and Mexico and then the season started. I haven’t even been able to really stop and look at what has happened to me over the last few months. I knew it was going to be this way so I said to myself on the first day of camp to not worry about the things I can’t control and just work on the things I can. I’m just taking everything day by day.”
His coaches have noticed.
“Kyle came into camp without an attitude,” Hackworth said. “He has worked hard and has been consistent in training so he earned the opportunity to start. He has great technical ability on the ball and good pace. The older guys trust him knowing that he won’t lose the ball and he can get it back to them.”
His coach foresees that he may be wearing the Stars and Stripes in the future.
“Day in and day out he has the drive and motivation to work hard,” Hackworth said. “After talent, that is the most important factor to be a successful soccer player. I’m pretty biased, but I think he has an opportunity to be on the US team in the future. Let me rephrase that, I really think that he has the chance to make it.”
While that would be a great accomplishment for Kyle, his sights are set on more immediate goals. The next thing on his list is to help his team get out of the MLS Eastern Conference cellar, though he’ll miss today’s match at the Home Depot Center against Chivas USA due to a right knee sprain.
But his eye is also on the future. As he becomes more established in the league, Kyle hopes to use his position as a professional athlete while utilizing his education to become a role model for Asian American and biracial kids.
“I’m really proud of being biracial and through my experiences, I have been able to identify with both sides of my family,” Kyle said. “My family has taught me to be proud of who I am. And I think because of that, it’s a huge reason why I’ve reached this point today. There haven’t been many Japanese American or hapa role models so far, especially in sports. So maybe I can be one.”
When his family travels the short distance to see their favorite soccer player on the pitch again, they will undoubtedly be proud watching someone they love who has worked so hard to continue fulfilling his dream.
“No matter how far he goes in soccer, his parents and I know one thing,” his 90-year-old grandfather said. “Kyle is everything you can hope for in a young man.”
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Mike Takeuchi is a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif. He covers soccer from the international to the high school level along with numerous other sports for the Santa Barbara News-Press and has written for several print and online publications in sports and film.