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Season review: Kyle Nakazawa

If you need proof that the level of play in MLS is improving, just ask Kyle Nakazawa. The Philadelphia Union’s third round choice in the 2010 SuperDraft was an offensive juggernaut in his senior season at UCLA, rebounding from an injury in 2009 to lead the team with 12 goals and 7 assists. But Nakazawa knew he would have to adjust his game to make it in the pros.

“I always knew the speed and physicality would be a lot higher than in college,” Nakazawa told the Philly Soccer Page. “The most surprising thing was how strenuous the road games get. It’s a ten month season and the traveling takes a toll on your mind and body.”

Nakazawa’s father told him that the only thing he can control is the controllables. It was advice he turned to when he hurt his back during his junior season at UCLA, and he turned to it again when he found himself on the bench for the first month of the Union’s season.

“I came in every day knowing that if I worked hard every day I would eventually get chances,” Nakazawa said.

And although it must have been tough to stomach, the lack of playing time was not an indictment of Nakazawa’s abilities as much as it spoke to the Union’s depth in the middle of the park. In the opening match of the season, defensive midfielder Toni Stahl found himself slotted into the back line and veteran middie Stefani Miglioranzi was sitting next to Nakazawa on the bench. Additionally, Union manager Peter Nowak favored holding midfielders to Nakazawa’s more attacking style of play.

Making the move from the collegiate game to MLS, Nakazawa knew he would have to become more of a box-to-box midfielder if he wanted to take his game to the next level. “Through college I was a lot more offensive-minded, but at the same time coaches always told me I’d have to become a two-way midfielder and improve my defensive abilities, defend and keep shape,” Nakazawa said. “That will become another weapon in my arsenal.”

It is an arsenal that already features one extremely dangerous weapon. From the first time Nakazawa lined up behind a dead ball, the Union’s young midfielder has proven to be a fearsome free kick specialist. Nakazawa has yet to bulge the net, but his free kicks were a revelation for a team that was often forced to use their best finisher (Le Toux) behind the ball on set pieces. Nakazawa revealed that he often stayed after practice to work on dead ball situations. “It’s the part of me trying to contribute in any way possible,” he said.


24 games played. 8 games started. 798 minutes. 8 shots on goal. 2 yellow cards.

High Point

With the Union down three against the Galaxy, Nakazawa replaced Andrew Jacobson in the 61st minute and logged the first 29 minutes of his professional career.

Low Point

One week after his first action, Nakazawa was handed his first start. Although the Union played well enough to win and wasted two early chances, they were on the losing end of a 3-0 result. While he cannot be faulted for the final score, the final score was certainly a confidence killer for the young midfielder.


Nakazawa was much stronger on the ball as the year wore on. He sped up his play to match the level of MLS and made the Union more dynamic in the process. While the Union are flush with central midfielders, there is nobody on the roster who can move the ball as well as Nakazawa. His ability to open up the field and spread the ball touchline to touchline is something the Union often lacked when the offense became clustered in the center of the park. Nakazawa showed a vicious shot and a willingness to dribble at a defense that was not on display during his freshman campaign. If he can incorporate those features into his formidable skillet, he will make the Union’s offense much more potent than it was in 2010.


He does not fit the Nowak system. If the manager maintains the 4-2-2-2 formation that the Union held onto in 2010, Nakazawa will have to make major adjustments to his game to become a regular. Simply put, he isn’t at his best in a deep role. It limits his ability to roam and become involved in the offense, and it keeps him too far back to effectively utilize his passing range, which is as good as that of Roger Torres, if not better. With the plethora of tireless holding midfielders at their disposal, the Union should look to deploy Nakazawa higher up the pitch so he can act as the link between the strikers and the midfield. Too often in 2010, this role fell to an outside midfielder like Justin Mapp, who had to drift inside to find the ball.

And if Nakazawa is going to make the most of his skills, he needs to continue to improve the speed at which he plays. MLS has a large stable of powerful defensive middies champing at the bit for a young player dribbling with his head down. Shalrie Joseph will punish that player every time.


On the KYW/PSP podcast, I disagreed with the rest of the panel when I said that Nakazawa should be protected. Apparently the Union brass agreed with me, so number thirteen must have some supporters in the coaching staff. Nakazawa was protected because he has upside as a mobile distributor, which is a role that no other Union center mid is fit to play. While Philadelphia looked to fill this role on a short-term basis with Eduardo Coudet, it’s clear that Nakazawa has the talent to step into that position in the future. In 2010, the Union’s offense flowed through Sebastian Le Toux. The goal for Nakazawa, both next year and long-term, is to make the offense flow through him. Only then will Philadelphia become an offensive powerhouse with their current roster.

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