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Kimura takes unconventional path from Japan to MLS

Sure, kid, see you in January.

Yeah, right.

That's what Western Illinois men's soccer coach Eric Johnson thought after reading an e-mail from a Japanese prospect in November 2002. The pair had been in contact on and off for several months. Still, Johnson had seen many eager international players from across the globe suddenly disappear. As for this one? Well, January finally came around, and Kosuke Kimura walked into Johnson's office unannounced.

Kimura bowed and in broken English said: "I am Kosuke Kimura. I am here." "I just stared at him for a few seconds," remembers Johnson. "It took me a little time to connect the dots. I had a résumé he sent me with Kosuke's picture in my top drawer. I pulled it out and he smiled because I knew who he was and everything was going to be OK."

From Yokohama all the way to Macomb, Ill. It was a gutsy move by Kimura. Sure, he was scared, nervous, intimidated when he arrived here, but he burned to play Division I soccer.

He wanted to suit up in the MLS. These days, Kimura owns the distinction of being the first Japanese player in the history of the league. Of course, that's a source of pride for Kimura.

However, he's even prouder of the leap which helped him make it to MLS. And now it looks like the kid will stick.

"Well, I got drafted the lowest of the low [35th pick of the 2007 supplemental draft]," says Kimura, now fluent in English. "I didn't even get to play in some reserve games my first year. But when I was little, my father was really hard-core. Everything was very disciplined."

Adds Kimura: "He used to tell me, 'If you believe in yourself, if you work hard, nobody can touch you if you have desire. Nobody can take anything away from you.'"

Back at Western Illinois, Johnson knew Kimura was a keeper the first time he worked out with the team. He went on to start all four seasons as a defensive midfielder for the Leathernecks. However, his MLS climb has been much slower.

Kimura played in just four games in 2007 -- the first not coming until Sept. 22.

Kimura, 24, admits that he was frustrated at times. But he just kept working hard in practice. He won every sprint, finished every set of push-ups first, even laughing off the dreaded beep test: a hellish endurance program, featuring a series of sprints run to a timed beep, that makes just about any MLS player cringe.

MLS Primetime
Saturday
Chicago at Seattle
Qwest Field, Seattle
3 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

For his effort, Kimura earned appearances in 18 games for Colorado last season, including 17 starts. He has played in 14 games for the Rapids this year, including 10 starts, and has scored two goals.

Kimura is only 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, but he makes up for his lack of size with his blazing speed and fitness.

"Kosuke is a player fans have to love," says Colorado coach Gary Smith. "He's overcome and endured so much. He just takes an awful lot of pride in being the best. This is a lad, who, now that he has this, will just set more goals. He will want to play in 200 MLS games or something like that. Kosuke won't rest on his laurels."

Growing up, Kimura dreamed of competing in Japan's J-League. He played for the Kawasaki Frontale reserve team during high school. However, as a senior, Kimura suffered a stress fracture in his leg.

He missed nine months and Kawasaki dropped him. He could have played college soccer in Japan, but according to Kimura, most Japanese players go straight from the preps to the pros. A friend of his back home, Issey Maholo, suggested he start writing to American Division I coaches.

However, Kimura couldn't speak English. Maholo could, though. A goalkeeper for Boston College from 2003-06, Maholo helped Kimura send e-mails to more than 30 Division I schools across the nation.

Western Illinois was one of the few that responded. Johnson saw video that Kimura sent to him from Japan and was impressed not only with Kimura but with the other talent on display. As a Division I coach looking for talent, Johnson said just about every player on the video could play for him.

Finally on campus in January 2003, Kimura had to enroll in the English as a Second Language program for a semester, gaining no credits. He still had to score a 900 on the SAT to be eligible to play. Since he couldn't speak English, on the advice of Maholo, he skipped the English portion of the exam, taking his automatic 200 points.

Kimura had studied math extensively back home. He says he managed to score about a 950 on the SAT, meaning 750 points came on the math portion, a near-perfect score.

"I just signed my name and slept through the English part," Kimura says. "I didn't even read it. I just relaxed for the math part. I was nervous, it was crazy. I'm just glad I studied math so much in Japan. I could make it out, even in English."

No, nothing seemingly will stop Kimura from reaching any of his goals. Not back then. Not now.

"I will never slack," Kimura says. "I will never get tired. I'm following the plan exactly. It wasn't easy, but I love playing pro soccer. This is all unbelievable to me."

Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at rodriguezespn@yahoo.com.

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