Sporting Kansas City midfielder Paulo Nagamura spent the better part of a four-month stretch in the trainer’s room, on the sidelines and essentially anywhere but in the middle of the action. A lingering ankle injury limited him to only two appearance from July through October.
In an ideal situation, Nagamura would have eased his way back into action this month after declaring himself healthy.
This wasn’t ideal.
After defender Lawrence Olum suffered a displaced fracture in his leg in the Sporting KC postseason opener in New England, Nagamura was forced to take on a heavy role. He logged 187 minutes in two games over a four-day stretch — more than he had played over the previous four months combined — including 97 minutes in a series-clinching victory against New England.
It didn’t come without consequence.
“It was one of the most painful, sore days in my entire career,” Nagamura said of the day following his return. “It was definitely a day I took to relax, rest and recover.”
It was certainly a much-needed one. Nagamura played all 90 minutes in a scoreless draw in Houston three days later. And he will likely once again be in the lineup when the club plays host to Houston on Saturday in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals. The winner will advance to play in the MLS Cup.
Prior to returning for the Nov. 6 home game against New England, Nagamura discussed his potential workload with coach Peter Vermes. They agreed on a 60-minute expectation.
In an overtime victory, however, the club needed more.
“I never thought he would play 97 minutes in that first match,” Vermes said. “He kept finding a way to push himself in that game, which says a lot about his intelligence and his ability to fight through it.
“I was waiting on him to wave to me, and he never did, so I just let him keep going.”
While Nagamura’s fitness has been a surprise, his play hasn’t. At least not to his coaches and teammates.
Nagamura has given the back of the Sporting KC midfield a spark during the postseason. Nagamura’s experience, Vermes says, shows in his placement on the field and in his decision-making.
“We knew he was a very important part of the way we play,” Vermes said. “He brings certain qualities to our team that we were missing a great deal. You could see it.”
With a two-week break between the first and second game of the Eastern Conference finals, Nagamura says his fitness is starting to return, along with his form.
“I would say I feel better and more confident,” Nagamura said. “But I knew when I came back, it was just a matter of fitness. Now, with two weeks between games and already (having) played two games, I think my game is only going to get better.”
In turn, so is Sporting KC.
“I was working as hard as I could to get back on the field, and now I’m working to help the team hopefully achieve the objective we have to win the conference,” Nagamura said. “It feels great to be back. To be honest, it feels awful to be in the trainer’s room. I don’t think any player wants to spend time there, but injuries happen.
“I always say that injuries can slow you down but never stop you.”