Sporting Kansas City midfielder Paulo Nagamura removed his warmup jersey and rushed to the midfield line at Sporting Park, a hurried, late-game substitution necessitated by an injury to Roger Espinoza.
The ensuing five-minute spell last week — which marked only his fifth MLS appearance since March 28 — proved insignificant in a 1-1 draw against Houston.
Except for this: It supplied a foreshadow for the next couple of months.
A day after Sporting KC learned it will be without Espinoza for at least 10 weeks because of a fractured bone in his left foot, it turned its attention to his potential replacement.
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“The thing that’s always been evident about Naga is that whenever he’s called up, the guy is ready, and he always seems to give more minutes than you think he’s capable of,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “That’s not going to change in this situation. He’s a pro.”
A fill-in role is an unusual one for Nagamura, an 11-year MLS veteran who has started at least 15 matches in nine different seasons. He’s been in the Sporting KC starting lineup 57 times since joining the club in 2012.
But the playing time has slowed to a near halt this summer. After starting three matches in March, the opening month of the season, Nagamura has been in the lineup only twice over the last four months.
That should change Saturday, when Sporting KC travels to face Toronto FC at 3 p.m.
“My first thought was that as a teammate and friend of Roger, I feel terrible. It was a bad tackle, and you never want to see that happen,” Nagamura said. “But on the other side is an opportunity that I’m waiting for. I want to take advantage of it the best way I can. I’ve been working on a daily basis to get an opportunity, and I don’t want to waste it.”
An injury has slowed his effort. Nagamura was hampered by a sore lower back for a bulk of the summer, but he says he feels “100 percent fine” as he prepares for a more prominent role.
He has been known to make an immediate impact coming off injuries. A nagging ankle sprain kept him off the field for the second half of the 2013 season, but he returned in the playoffs and played at least 90 minutes in four straight matches, including the MLS Cup Final.
“I know my teammates well, and I know the way we want to approach the game, so I don’t think it will be difficult working my way in,” Nagamura said. “They’re comfortable with me, and I’m comfortable with them. Whoever steps onto the field on game day is going to get the job done, whether they’ve been in the lineup (recently) or not. That’s how we’ve set this mentality on our club.”