JAPAN TO WESTERN ILLINOIS
Kosuke Kimura needed a 900 on his SAT to continue his soccer dream at Western Illinois.
It was the spring of 2003, and Kimura was in Macomb, Illinois. He had traveled halfway across the world, from his home country of Japan, to chase his two passions, soccer and sports medicine. He had no money and knew no English. Western Illinois’ head men’s soccer coach, Eric Johnson, had helped Kimura enroll in an English Second Language course to assist him on the SAT. WIU required at least a 900 to gain acceptance, where Kimura could walk on to the soccer team.
“We explained to him about the process of getting accepted to Western,” Johnson said. “His English was not good enough, and he had some significant barriers to overcome to play college soccer.”
Back in the early 2000s the SAT had two sections, an 800-point verbal section and an 800-point math section. Signing your name to a section gave you an automatic 200 points. Correct answers would add to that number, while wrong answers would count against you. Kimura knew every point mattered. Knowing little English, Kimura studied only for the math portion for six weeks leading up to the SAT.
On test day, Kimura signed his name to the verbal section and went to sleep. He slept for two and a half hours, saving all 200 of his points. In the math section, Kimura went to work, banking on his number skills to carry his score.
The strategy paid off and a 750 in math was just enough. Kimura and his 950-point SAT score enrolled in Western Illinois as a walk-on.
“I took a chance,” Kimura said. “I had to gamble. I left the English section blank. I knew they couldn’t wait a year on me before I passed the SAT, so I took a risk.”
On the field, Kimura had immediate success. He found his way into the WIU starting lineup as a freshman in a holding midfield role, and was named the team’s Newcomer of the Year in 2003.
“Within an hour of the first practice session of the season, I knew we had found our holding midfielder of the next four years,” Johnson said.
In Macomb, Ill., Kimura had to adjust to life as a student-athlete. With all of his money going towards school, Kimura didn’t have enough to buy books or a meal plan. His daily meals would consist of eggs and bananas, while trips to the library were a necessity to allow Kimura the materials he needed to study.
After playing in all 19 games as a freshman, including 18 starts, Kimura shed the label of “walk-on” and earned a scholarship. The next three years of college soccer for Kimura were filled with consistency and success. Kimura started 75 total games through his four seasons as a Leatherneck, a program record that still stands, and helped lead WIU to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the first trips in Western Illinois’ 35-year history.
WESTERN ILLINOIS TO COLORADO
While Kosuke Kimura was a key player on a solid mid-major soccer team, he didn’t stand out enough to earn any looks by professional scouts, and a career as a sports trainer looked likely. Kimura had worked as a student trainer with many of the other Leatherneck sports teams at WIU, filling up his schedule so much that he would stay on campus over winter break to work with the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Kimura’s last game as a college athlete came in November of 2006 in the NCAA First Round against Illinois-Chicago. Colorado Rapids head college scout John Murphy was in the crowd scouting a player on the UIC sideline, but kept noticing the hard-working midfielder from Western Illinois.
“As a scout, your eye is just drawn to good players,” Murphy said. “Kosuke for me just stood out. His energy, his appetite to get on the ball, his technical ability are things that could be seen right away. He had a lot of attributes I like as a player.”
Murphy almost didn’t even have a chance to see Kosuke. Severe thunderstorms pushed the NCAA Tournament First Round game in Chicago back a day, causing Murphy to have to make a decision on whether or not to change his flight to stay an extra day. Ultimately, Murphy extended his stay by a day to watch the match.
With a scouting report in hand on Kimura, Murphy went back to Commerce City, Colo. to attempt to convince Rapids general manager Charlie Wright to draft Kimura. In 2007, Major League Soccer had the SuperDraft, where the impact players would come from, and the Supplemental Draft, where teams would pick players to help fill out reserve squad rosters.
On January 12, 2007, both drafts occurred with the Supplemental immediately following the SuperDraft. Wright and the Rapids had five SuperDraft picks and three in the supplemental round, a chance to bring in eight young players to bolster a squad who the year before had made the MLS Cup Semifinals.
There were 52 players drafted in the four-round MLS SuperDraft in 2007, but Kimura was not among the Rapids five SuperDraft picks.
“It was one of those things where I had a group of players I had looked at,” Murphy said. “As the draft got further and further along, they were getting picked by other teams. “I didn’t see Kosuke as a top kid coming out, but once we started getting into the Supplemental rounds, that is when Kosuke started coming to the forefront.”
In the Supplemental Draft, 34 more players were selected and none of them were a Japanese midfielder. Finally, in the 3rd round with the 35th pick, Colorado selected Kosuke Kimura out of Western Illinois.
“We took a chance and waited a little longer to draft [Kosuke] than Coach Murphy wanted me to,” Wright said with a laugh. “I was pretty sure he would still be there when we were ready to draft him.”
While Murphy and Wright were excited to draft Kimura, the 5’9” student trainer had no idea his name was called at the draft. He was in the Western Illinois gym presiding over basketball practice, and his phone kept ringing.
“I was missing so many phone calls, but I couldn’t pick up because I was working,” Kimura reflected. “I didn’t know that day was the MLS draft.”
Luckily, Coach Johnson slid into practice, and not wanting to spoil the moment, mentioned to Kimura that he should check his email. For Kimura, it had been a long day, and after practice he went to sleep, forgetting to check his email before bed.
“The next morning, my coach asked me if I had checked on the draft,” Kimura said. “When I looked, I saw that I got drafted by the Colorado Rapids. They called me and said to come right away.”
Kosuke Kimura’s professional career is now in its 12th season. In that time, Kimura has been a significant part of MLS history while accumulating numerous awards and accolades, merits and honors. On September 22, 2007, Kimura made his MLS debut for Colorado, becoming the first Japanese-born player to ever play in the MLS.
“I just wanted to do the best to set the standard for the next Japanese people to come into this league,” Kimura said.
He was also a member of the 2010 Rapids team that won Colorado’s only MLS Cup in club history. Kimura scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals that season to send Colorado on to the MLS Cup Final. On the sideline that season was Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith, while Nashville SC keeper Matt Pickens patrolled the net for Colorado. In his career, Kimura has played alongside several soccer stars including Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Darlington Nagbe.
“I’ve won everything I could,” Kimura said. “Yeah, I did it, but now it’s all about what I can do next. I’m only as good as last time I touched the ball.”
That attitude has been what has kept Kimura playing professional soccer for the last 12 seasons. Now, as his playing career is in its twilight, Kimura is making plans for the future. This season with Nashville SC, he is in the role of a player/coach, using his experience to help instruct and mentor younger players on the team.
It’s a natural role for an effusive personality like Kimura’s. He brings out the best in those around him, a good quality for any coach. Those who have seen him grow up in the game of soccer see the perfect fit for Kimura.
“It doesn't surprise me at all that they are using him as a player coach because of his experience,” said Johnson, who remains the head coach at Western Illinois. “He has a great demeanor and is very demanding but at the same time, very understanding.”
“Kosuke is such a smart man and such a hard worker that it makes complete sense that he is in this role in Nashville,” said Wright, now the CFO of the Denver Zoo.
“He is the type of person you can depend on,” said Murphy, now the head men’s soccer coach at Georgia Southern. “When he puts his mind to it, he can be just about anything he wants to be. He’s a very impressive person.”
The challenge of helping build the foundation of an expansion club isn’t all that different from the many other challenges Kimura has faced in his career – passing the SAT while knowing almost no English, earning a college soccer scholarship, being the first Japanese player in the MLS, winning an MLS Cup. They all come with a measure of improbability, one that hasn’t stopped Kimura yet.
“A path will be created after you walk,” said Kimura. “I’m making a path for myself with nothing in front of me. I’ve been taking it day-by-day, being the best I can be and pushing myself. With the right motivation, I just keep building. Then you look back, and there is your path.”
It’s an example all of Nashville can look to, as the city blazes its own path in professional soccer.