It’s bound to become the iconic image of Paulo Nagamura’s time with Sporting Kansas City — a blood-stained bandage crudely taped onto his left cheek as he scored what would become the game-winning penalty kick in a 3-2 shootout win Aug. 8 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Nagamura, a 29-year-old Brazilian midfielder, had his first try saved with the shootout knotted 2-2, but he got a second chance because Seattle Sounders FC goalkeeper Michael Gspurning had come off his line early.
As veterans tend to do, Nagamura didn’t squander the opportunity, ensuring Sporting KC would hoist the trophy.
After the game, Nagamura would need eight stitches to close the gash on his cheek, which he suffered only a few minutes into the game in a collision with Sounders midfielder Alex Caskey. But Nagamura never considered coming off.
Honestly, he seems proud of the crooked, inch-long permanent reminder.
“Every time I look in the mirror, I see what it takes to be a champion,” Nagamura said. “I’ll take another eight stitches on the other side to win the MLS Cup.”
Sporting KC, 16-7-6, reached the Eastern Conference final last season, which was the first taste of postseason play for much of a still-young roster.
Nagamura’s arrival was for moments such as now, supplying a veteran presence and a seasoned field general for the regular season’s closing kick as well as for another run at the MLS Cup.
“He’s exactly the guy we traded for,” Vermes said. “What’s he brought is another veteran player in this league who understands what needs to be done. He can get his hands dirty, but he’s also good enough on the ball that he can play the game we want to play.
“You need those scrappers in the middle of the park, especially late in the season and during the playoffs, so he’s definitely the guy I saw all along fitting into our team. At times, he’s brought even more than I hoped for, but the experience — a guy who’s been in the league and has success in the league — was the big thing.”
Nagamura’s career started in the youth ranks for Sao Paulo FC, a powerhouse in his home country, and Arsenal FC, where he helped the English Premier League club’s under-19 team win a league title.
He moved to the MLS in 2005, where he won MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup titles that first season with the LA Galaxy.
Nagamura was selected in the expansion draft by Toronto FC after the 2006 season, but only played four games north of the border before moving on to Chivas USA, where he spent parts of the next five seasons before Sporting KC acquired him Nov. 29, 2011.
He went to the playoffs three season with Chivas and also spent part of the 2010 season in the Mexican league.
“Watching him play motivates me, because he’s chasing every ball and making the tough tackles,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “He’s a little bulldog out there.”
Hampered during the preseason by a calf injury, Nagamura had to be patient as Vermes eased him into a role with Sporting KC.
But now, especially Saturday in Montreal with Roger Espinoza suspended for yellow-card accumulation, Nagamura is filling a vital role and fits perfectly into Vermes’ high-pressure system.
“Obviously, I enjoy being in a starting role more lately, but I knew when I came that the team already had 11 guys who played last year and did very well,” Nagamura said. “I had to respect that, but I always knew the more and more I played, the more confidence I would get and the more acclimatized I would get with the team.”
Being patient wasn’t always easy, but it’s paying off for Nagamura and Sporting KC right now.
“Especially down the stretch, he knows how to win,” Vermes said. “He knows what it takes late in the season and moving forward from there. You want to go to war with the guys who’ve been through the battles before. He’s a guy who’s been there and knows how to react in those situations.”