Paulo Nagamura is the kind of player so frustrating to tangle with at times that some opponents can’t stand facing him, which is why Sporting Kansas City is thrilled.
“I’ve played against him before and he’s a difficult guy to play against,” said left wing Bobby Convey, who also joined Sporting KC by a trade during the offseason. “He’s one of the guys you want on your team and, when he’s not on your team, you don’t like him very much.”
In other words, Nagamura, a 29-year-old Brazilian midfielder, might quickly become a fan favorite for his ferocious style, but only if he can stay healthy.
He played in only 26 games during the last two seasons and managed to play the full 90 minutes twice in 11 appearances last season. He was acquired in late November from Chivas USA in exchange for a supplemental draft pick Sporting KC received days earlier in the deal that sent Ryan Smith to Chivas USA.
Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes indicated the foot injury — a broken fifth metatarsal — that had Nagamura laid up a year ago is no longer a concern. But a recent calf strain has limited his training.
“He’s still adjusting to our system and we’re still getting him fit,” Vermes said. “He’s kind of dinged up at the moment, but it’s not something we are worried about. He’s getting closer to full strength and will be a tremendous asset when he is, because he’s a player of great quality.”
Nagamura can play anywhere in the midfield but primarily is expected to challenge fellow Brazilian Julio Cesar for playing time alongside reigning MLS breakout player of the year Graham Zusi and fourth-year veteran Roger Espinoza, who is currently away with the Honduras national team.
“(The midfield) is crowded, but it’s something that I’m used to and I’m ready for the challenge,” said Nagamura, who has nine goals and 14 assists in 157 career MLS games.
Vermes is convinced that a healthy Nagamura, who won the MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005 and was an All-Star in 2009 with Chivas USA, will be a perfect fit in Sporting KC’s high-pressure 4-3-3 system, which requires active and versatile midfielders who can play from box to box, defend and tackle but also jump start the attack.
“First off, he’s very good on the ball and connects the game really well,” Vermes said. “He’s a little terrier, a little pit bull, and does a great job winning the ball in the back. He possesses a lot of qualities that really mesh with way we want to play. He’s smart enough to know the moments of when to hold and when to go, but he also knows how to destroy plays.”
Until Nagamura is 100 percent, it’s hard to predict how many minutes he’ll see and in what role, but if the preseason is any indication, he will be a big part of the season.
“Because of the experience he has, you have no fear throwing him in whether it’s as a starter or off the bench,” Vermes said.
Nagamura, of course, would prefer to start and play every game, “but I have to respect all the guys who were already here and earn my spot with this team. I have to earn the respect and faith to be a starter on this team.”