Like many young, aspiring soccer players in Peru, Yoshi Yotun wondered as a child how far the beautiful game might take him.
It's taken Yotun quite, quite far. He's traveled to Europe as a child learning the game, solidified himself in Peru as a young professional player, ventured to one of Brazil's legendary club teams, and then got a taste of Champions League playing for a legendary Swedish team, before landing in Florida to play with MLS's Orlando City SC.
And thanks to his involvement with Peru's national team, he's gone even farther: In 2017, though a wild CONMEBOL qualifying campaign throughout South America where his team won the coveted-but-dreaded intercontinental playoff spot, and then, in a winner-goes-to-the-World Cup, loser-goes-home contest which took him to New Zealand and back for the right to play in Russia against the world's best.
Yoshi Yotun's MLS Flight Path
Yotun, now 29, began his soccer journey began at Academia Cantalao, a top Peruvian youth academy in his hometown of Callao (within the Lima metropolitan area, housing both Peru's primary international airport and its principal seaport). "I went to a tryout when I was eight years old, and I thank God I was actually able to make it," he recalled. He notes that the academy develops a number of notable Peruvian players, and sends players throughout South America and even Europe to compete against some of the world's best young players.
At 11, Yotun got to travel to and play in the Gothia Cup, a massive international youth tournament launched in 1975 and now involving teams from 80 nations. He remembers it as "a beautiful experience that helped shape me, and played a key role in my development. It helped me become the player I am today." The pace of three games a day is beyond what he'd previously been used to, and host city Gothenburg, Sweden was many miles away from Lima, but he embraced all it had to offer – not knowing then that Sweden would figure pivotally into his soccer future.
Yotun notes that landing with Lima-based Sporting Cristal, where he began his pro career as a 17-year-old, was "the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my career."
"They're one of the best clubs in Peru," he notes. "They're a winning and ambitious club. Winning two league titles with them is still one of the best moments of my career." Their participation in international tournaments – and the chance for him to showcase his talent outside of Peru – was key in his decision to stay with them and develop.
He did get the chance to play outside of Peru while still attached to Sporting Cristal, via a 2013 loan to Vasco de Gama, a Rio de Janeiro-based team in Brazil's top-flight league.
"It was my first experience playing outside of Peru," Yotun recalls, "in one of the best, if not the best, places for soccer in South America. I played many games for them as fullback, and feel like I grew and matured a lot. It taught me how to play in a league with a lot of high-quality players. I respect their level of play a lot."
By 2015, the then-25-year-old Yotun was ready for new challenges, and dreamt of going to Europe. An opportunity presented itself at Malmo FF, Sweden's most successful club team, and Yotun got to contribute to their success, helping the squad win two league titles in this two and a half seasons there.
"One of my dreams was to play in Champions League, and Malmo allowed me to do that," Yotun recalls. He relished playing against top European teams, and in his time at Malmo, is proud to have earned the trust of his coaches. He expanded his role from left back, where he'd previously excelled, to midfield, where he got to make more decisions and have what he feels is a greater role in a team's success.
"That change actually started with the national team," Yotun notes. "That's where I was first introduced to it." Malmo is where he began to grow into the new position on the club level. "I like to keep the ball, I like to distribute it, and I like to manage the game, and so I really like playing it."
Yotun admits that Europe, and especially Sweden, is far from family and familiar foods and surroundings. He described it as "beautiful but cold," and found it difficult in parts because he was away from his parents, but having his wife and daughter come to Sweden with him was crucial. As he puts it, "It gave me the strength to perform and to do what I love."
Yotun would make his way to the United States – closer to home, and into a changing and evolving MLS – signing with Orlando City SC in August 2017. He recalls the club first expressed interest in December 2016, and notes that even though the negotiations were lengthy, he left in the midst of what was shaping up to be another solid Malmo season to take a chance on a league he'd never played in before.
"We were able to make it happen, and I think it's the best decision I ever made," he says.. "I like the team and the staff here; they've made it feel like home. My family loves living in this city, and if they're happy, I'm happy, and I'm able to focus on the field. For me, it's been very gratifying. I'm grateful for how the city has received me."
When he was contemplating the decision, he reached out to a friend from his hometown – fellow Peruvian international player Alexander Callens, who joined NYCFC in January 2017. "He told me it was a strong league, and that it was growing a lot." Yotun recalls. "When I got here, I was able to confirm that for myself," remarking on both the competitive balance and how committed he is through helping the league grow.
Yotun did his part to foster that growth this summer, being one of 19 MLS players to compete in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Though teammate Raul Ruidiaz did sign with Seattle Sounders FC just weeks after the World Cup ended, Yotun was, at the time of the tournament, the only Peru national player on an MLS roster.
Peru was one of the feel-good stories of the World Cup, qualifying for just their first World Cup since 1982. Though they were ousted in the group stages, in a group that included the eventual champions from France, they played exciting, inspired soccer which found them admirers across the globe.
"To represent your country at the World Cup is the best thing that can happen to a soccer player," he declares. "I've gotten to play very many important tournaments for Peru; playing the World Cup changed our careers. We want to work hard now to make sure we get there again and allow our country to enjoy it."
Heading into the last qualifying match, Peru needed to secure a draw against Colombia to finish at least fifth in the CONMEBOL table; Yotun had been subbed off by the time the late equalizer came in the form of an own goal, yet still got to be a contributing part of one of the greatest moments in Peru soccer history.
"We as a team were always focused, with a positive attitude, to make sure we could give this joy to our country," he recalls. "To qualify was an incredible experience."
The November 2017 intercontinental playoff against Oceania champion New Zealand ended up being for the last spot in the World Cup — and also, in a sense, the first two matches in a World Cup that was still officially seven months away. While some thought New Zealand would be an easy opponent for Peru to dispatch, Yotun and his teammates knew better.
"We knew it was going to be difficult," he remembers. "New Zealand is a country that has grown a lot in their soccer. It was very difficult to play there, across the world, with the time change, there were many factors that played against us."
In the Wellignton-hosted opening leg, the teams dueled to a scoreless draw; as Yotun notes, "They could have won that match, they had many opportunities, we didn't really play that well, but they weren't able to score." Four days later, the Peru team returned to Lima for the second match. As he recalls, "It was a national holiday, basically. Everybody was paying attention to this match, and we dominated it. We controlled the game and earned our path to the World Cup." The 2-0 win delivered them into the tournament, and less than a month later, learned they'd be in a group with Australia, Denmark, and France.
On playing the team that would win the World Cup, Yotun says, "It was a special opportunity for us to play against some very talented players, and I congratulate them for what they've achieved."
For Yotun, there was perhaps a touch of redemption in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. During the qualifying process for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in a match against Uruguay, Yotun was given a red card for an incident involving Luis Suarez.
Toward halftime of that match, Suarez went down when a Peruvian player nudged him in the back, and as Suarez rolled on the ground, Yotun approached him, rolled the ball at him, and attempted to pull him up by the arm. The referee ejected Yotun — a move that Peru coach Sergio Markarian felt was unwarranted — but Suarez did score the game-winner against a shorthanded Peru side. Though it was one of a number of factors in Peru failing to qualify in 2014, as they finished 7th in the table, some Peru fans saw Yotun at fault.
"It was a tough moment because of everything happening around the national team," he reflects, "But you learn from your mistakes. Obviously, that's not going to happen again."
And, now that Yotun and his fellow Peruvians know the joy of making the World Cup, they'll be striving to repeat in 2022. And though Peru's in a particularly challenging federation, Yotun brings them — quite literally — a world of experience, growing stronger with each MLS match he plays.