KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Paulo Nagamura's return from injury has given Sporting Kansas City more than just a shot of midfield energy on their way to the MLS Cup final. The veteran midfielder has also brought back a tactical element that was missing when he was out for half of the regular season and the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a nagging ankle sprain.
“He's such a good box-to-box midfielder,” left back Seth Sinovic told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “He's tenacious defensively – winning tackles, winning headers. And then on top of that he's making runs out of the midfield all the time, which is something that's huge for our team and the way we like to play. Tactically, he's such a smart player. He's very good on the ball. He brings a lot to the midfield, a different dynamic. He's been a huge reason why we've made this run.”
And on Saturday, when Sporting and Real Salt Lake meet in the title match at Sporting Park (4 pm ET, ESPN, UniMas, TSN2/RDS in Canada), Nagamura is likely to find himself matched against another dangerous midfielder in RSL's Javier Morales.
“He's a great player, one of the best playmakers in our league, and I think we – not only me, but we as a group – have to keep our eyes on him,” Nagamura said. “He's a guy who can play the final ball, who can in one play decide the game.”
Don't look for Nagamura to change up his own game against Morales, though.
“I don't think it's going to be much different than what you guys saw against New England and Houston,” he said. “You're going to see a box-to-box midfielder who's going to help on both ends of the field, and what I'll try to do is bring the experience I have the last few years in the playoffs so we can go Saturday and get the job done.”
That approach to the game, and Nagamura's ability to make his skill set work within Sporting's 4-3-3 high press, were just what manager Peter Vermes was looking for when he made a trade to get Nagamura from Chivas USA before the 2012 season.
“He's a very good guy when we don't have the ball, but he also does some very good things off the ball as well,” Vermes said. “I think the biggest thing is that he's an experienced guy in that part of the field. That's one of the reasons I went out and got him a couple of years ago because we thought he really fit into the way that we play really well. His impact, when he's out there, is that he's the one guy who's truly a field general on the field. We need that leadership and that experience.”
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And that energy, as well.
Nagamura missed the last five matches of the regular season and Sporting's 2-1 loss at New England in the opening leg of the East semifinal. But since then, he's played 277 of a possible 300 minutes.
“He's been a monster for us,” winger Graham Zusi said. “Just his energy level has seemed to boost us so much in these playoffs. Honestly, I think without his role I struggle to see us doing as well as we have.”
Nagamura plays down that talk, though.
“You can never single out a single player for the success of the team,” he said. “We have a very good core of the group, we understand how we want to play and match up against other teams. I get flattered by all the comments, but for me it's not about myself, it's about the team and how good we are and how good we can be.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.