In the 65th minute of a scoreless match, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Paulo Nagamura removed the mesh pinnie covering his white jersey, walked to the midfield sideline and informed the referee of his impending substitution.
For an 11-year MLS veteran, it was an unfamiliar walk — but one that he shortly thereafter proved he’s starting to embrace.
Ten minutes later, Nagamura provided the only goal of a 1-0 victory against Chicago. He claims it was the first header in his career.
That was merely the most noticeable highlight in a 25-minute appearance marked by its energy and effort.
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“I never doubt that he’s going to come into the game and give everything he has,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “He’s 5-foot-nothing, and he’s going up against a guy that is 6-4, and his first action of the game is trying to win a header. That’s the way he competes. And it’s big for the rest of our players when he’s out there.”
When Roger Espinoza returned to Sporting KC last offseason, it made for a crowded midfield within a club that already boasted Nagamura and Benny Feilhaber.
Nagamura, a man with 227 career MLS appearances, was the odd man out, and thus a move designed to improve the team’s starting lineup also supplied a simultaneous boost to the bench.
“I understand the way it’s worked out,” Nagamura said. “But I’m still going to give my best in training every day to be a starter again. If that won’t happen, I’ll respect (Vermes’) call and his decision. I’m going to keep preparing myself for when the opportunity comes.”
The transition to a reserve role has certainly required some adjustments — perhaps in mental preparation more than any other avenue.
Nagamura made 38 appearances with Sporting KC over the past two seasons — and every last one of them came as a starter. In 11 MLS seasons, he’s averaged only two appearances off the bench per year.
He’s already matched that role this season, and there are likely many more to come.
“It’s different, of course,” Nagamura said. “You have to adjust a couple of things, but at the end of the day, it’s the same game with the same teammates. So if you have a good mentality, you work during the week, know your role and (are) prepared to step on the field when you get called, you’re going to do” well.
The playing time has decreased this season. The leadership role within the locker room hasn’t changed.
Nagamura, 32, is the oldest player on the Sporting KC roster, and when Vermes acquired him before the 2012 season, he praised his lead-by-example mindset.
The remains true today.
“Paulo is an ultimate professional. He’s a leader on this team, whether he’s in the starting 11, in the 18 or not even in the group,” winger Graham Zusi said. “It’s never a question about what we’re going to get from him. This past weekend proved that even more. He’s a heck of a spark plug off the bench for us.”