KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Paulo Nagamura spent the bulk of last season getting past injuries and getting acclimated to life with his new club. This year, the MLS veteran finds himself the dean of Sporting Kansas City's midfield.
“Last year I did pretty well adjusting to how the team wants to play,” said Nagamura, who made 27 league appearances with 19 starts and etched himself into club history with his decisive second-chance conversion in the shootout stage of the US Open Cup final. “That paid off in the second half of the season when I played almost every game. Now, this season I feel more comfortable with the way we play and the players we have. Like I said one year ago, it's only going to get better and it's getting better every day.”
But with offseason acquisition Benny Feilhaber's experience in the league and Uri Rosell's quick study since joining Sporting last summer, Nagamura hasn't felt any extra pressure to bring his midfield mates up to speed.
“Both Uri and Benny have been adjusting pretty well,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “I know that it's going to take a little time for Benny to adapt to the way we play and the style that we want to do in a game, but I think that we have a good understanding.
And while the Brazilian will – as usual – wear a bandage on his cheek when Sporting visit Toronto FC on Saturday (1:30 pm ET, TSN/RDS2 in Canada, MLS Live in the US), that's a purely cosmetic bit of superstition. After working through a sore calf early in the 2012 season and missing Sporting's two playoff matches with a sprained ankle, Nagamura came back fit and healthy in 2013.
“Every time somebody asks me, it's about coming off an injury,” he said. “To be honest, it was just two years ago that I had a bad year with injuries. But beyond that, I've been pretty fit. But in general, I feel very good this year. I feel very fit. I think having the whole preseason helped me even more to be ready for the season.”
(As superstitions go, for the record, Nagamura's hasn't failed him yet. Counting the Open Cup final, when a collision laid his cheek open, Sporting are 7-0-6 when he wears the bandage.)
With Roger Espinoza departed for Premier League side Wigan Athletic, much of the gritty work of ball-winning will fall to Nagamura this season. He's well-suited to the job, manager Peter Vermes told reporters during Sporting's weekly news conference.
“Physically, he's where he needs to be – where we wanted him to be a year ago when we started the season, but he wasn't. So that gives him a big step forward,” Vermes said. “Another thing is that he completely understands the way we want to play and he's got a serious routine in that part of the field. The other is that he's a very good defender. He's a little pit bull in there. We continue to need that aggressiveness in that area of the field.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.