Kosuke Kimura may be Japanese soccer’s best-kept secret, but the New York Red Bulls right back is hoping to announce himself on the biggest stage at this summer’s World Cup.
Kimura remains a relative unknown in his home country despite carving out a successful career in the United States, where he won the Major League Soccer title with Colorado Rapids in 2010 and has racked up 158 appearances over seven league seasons.
With the World Cup just around the corner, however, the uncapped 29-year-old is refusing to give up hope. Kimura is aware that forcing his way into Japan’s squad will be difficult with the tournament kicking off on June 12, but a recent conversation with Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh has lifted his spirits.
“When I talked to Andy Roxburgh he told me he had had contact with the JFA again,” Kimura told The Japan Times in Tokyo earlier this week before returning to the U.S. for preseason training. “They asked him how I was doing.
“You never know. Definitely their eyes are on me, for sure. In order to get called up I need the numbers — goals and assists. It’s going to be hard for me to score goals as a right back, but still, making assists is huge — almost as good as a goal. Maybe within a couple of months I can. I am going to be 30 this year but my body still feels like it is 20.”
Should Kimura make the plane to Brazil this summer, many in Japan will be hearing his name for the first time.
Finding his dreams of turning professional in the J. League ended by a broken foot as a 17-year-old, Kimura decided to follow a friend’s advice and seek an athletic scholarship in the U.S. After learning English practically from scratch to pass the entrance exam at Western Illinois University, the Kobe native starred for the Leathernecks before entering the MLS Draft in 2007 and beginning his pro career with Colorado.
“The first problem was the language, for sure,” he said in fluent, American-inflected English. “If you play any kind of sports in Japan, you don’t have any spare time. You train every day. So I never really studied English and I knew only a little basic grammar.
“When I went there, everything was brand new but the language just killed me. It took me such a long time to be able to communicate with people and my teammates. The language was the hardest part.”
Kimura’s perseverance eventually paid off to the extent that he now finds himself sharing a dressing room with French great Thierry Henry and Australia’s Tim Cahill, having joined Red Bulls at the start of last season.
“I’ve never seen a player who has everything like that,” Kimura said of Henry, who left Barcelona for Red Bulls in 2010. “I’ve never seen a player with such a big body with that technique. And the speed and his soccer IQ is another level. All of a sudden he will just do something that I’ve never seen before.
“He has helped me a lot as a professional player. I thought I worked hard, and yeah I do work hard, but there is a next step. You need more direction for your hard work. For Thierry Henry it’s natural, but I see what he does every day, how he thinks about football, and that gives me such huge experience. I hope I can learn more this season.”
But while every soccer fan in Japan knows Henry’s name, far fewer have heard of his 175-cm defensive teammate. Kimura’s easy-going personality prevents him from harboring any resentment at having such a low profile in his own country, but he admits the lack of recognition can be frustrating.
“I didn’t go through the J. League, and that’s the problem,” he said. “If I had played in the J. League for a couple of years and then went there, that’s a big deal. In Japan they think I’m almost like an American because I went to college and did it my way and became pro. No one knew I was a pro almost until I won the league.
“Definitely my style is a little different from Japanese players. In MLS you have to score a goal with less passes. It’s more taking guys on, going up and down the channel and crossing. Japanese players like to pass and break it down. It’s not really so individual. In MLS it’s all about what you can do yourself.”
Kimura insists he would not rule out a move to the J. League one day, but there is no sense of regret at what might have been had he taken a more conventional path.
“I never really thought about it,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a wrong decision — you make it the right decision. I never really thought about ‘what if?’
“I’m really happy that I got myself so far. Maybe if I had played in the J. League it would have been different, but I love what I’m doing right now. I’m hoping that I can take this to the next stage and help the next generation in Japan. Maybe I can open the door a little more and make that bridge between MLS and the J. League.”