As he steps into his role as Houston Dynamo FC's new head coach, Paulo Nagamura recognizes that plenty of work lies ahead.
The former Sporting Kansas City midfielder takes the reins at a club in flux, as the Dynamo finished last in the Western Conference in 2021 to miss the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight year. But with a new majority owner in Ted Segal, a new general manager in Pat Onstad and now a new head coach in Nagamura, the hope is that 2022 will mark the dawn of a new era.
As he was officially introduced at a Tuesday press conference in Houston, Nagamura stressed the need to re-establish a winning culture that's proven elusive in recent seasons.
"I believe we have to change the culture a little bit, to rescue that identity that Houston had 7-8 years ago," Nagamura said. "We need to implement a culture and that is a process, that's not an overnight project. We need to rescue that. And once we settle that and have a good culture in the club I'm sure the pieces that are going to be added on, reinforcements, new signings, will make this a very competitive team."
As he evaluated which candidate could best accomplish that objective, Onstad said that main criteria included experience and familiarity with MLS.
While Nagamura is a first-time MLS coach, he's been around the league for over a decade, starting with his lengthy playing career that included stints with LA Galaxy, Toronto FC, Chivas USA and Sporting Kansas City. After his 2016 retirement, Nagamura spent the last four seasons coaching SKC's USL Championship affiliate Sporting Kansas City II, where he learned under one of the league's longest-tenured and most successful coaches in Peter Vermes.
"When we searched around the world for all those coaches, speaking to a lot of high-potential coaches that we were looking for, is that we found the biggest issue we had with a lot of these guys we spoke to was a lack of familiarity with MLS," Onstad said. "Well, the gentleman beside me has played 12 years in the league. He's been in a coaching environment for five years, he's as long in the tooth in MLS as I am. He's a guy that's very familiar and I think what's really important as well is he's a winner. He's won two MLS Cups, three U.S. Open Cups, he's continually been on teams that have been fighting for championships. And that's the type of person we wanted to hire."
Nagamura also highlighted the experience he gained with Sporting Kansas City II as invaluable in preparing him to be an MLS head coach.
"I'm very grateful for the SKC organization and Peter Vermes for being my mentor the last five years when I became the coach," he said. "I learned a lot from him, the way he deals with players, the way he sees the game, the way he manages his daily routine. So I'm grateful, I learned a lot in that organization.
"It's a long process. It's a project and if I need to call Peter to ask for advice, I definitely will."
Thinking back to his playing days, Nagamura said he remembers the Dynamo being a consistently formidable adversary, with a clear identity that always made for difficult games – qualities that he's looking to reignite as he starts his tenure. Houston won MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007, plus the U.S. Open Cup in 2018.
"I would say the same identity that when I was a player – I would come here and play against the Houston Dynamo: A team that is really difficult to play against, a team that is always on the front foot, a team that is proactive, aggressive," Nagamura said. "From watching the Houston Dynamo the last few years, I think we got away from that and I think we're going to go back to that and make this place really our fortress."
At 38, Nagamura becomes one of the league's youngest head coaches and the youngest in club history. Asked what the distinction means to him, the Brazil native said he's prepared to tackle the challenge ahead.
"It means just the number of my age," he said. "I believe every coach has their own path. Every coach starts in a different way. So, for me, it doesn't mean anything. I said before, I'm ready for this challenge, I've been involved at the professional level for the last 20-plus years playing and coaching, so it's just a number to me."