MLS 🔵 Pulling back the layers: Hosei Kijima has done a lot of growing in going from Yokohama to City SC – Shango Media

MLS 🔵 Pulling back the layers: Hosei Kijima has done a lot of growing in going from Yokohama to City SC

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St. Louis City SC kicks off  four days of training in St. Louis

City SC head coach Bradley Carnell talks with the team’s first-round draft pick Hosei Kijima on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, at the club’s training center in St. Louis.

On March 16, City SC played its first game on the West Coast this season, facing the Los Angeles Galaxy. With midfielders Njabulo Blom and Eduard Lowen out with injuries, Hosei Kijima, the team’s first-round draft pick, made the trip and came into the game for Aziel Jackson in the 69th minute. With eight minutes of stoppage time, Kijima played almost half an hour.

The team flew home after the game and, with the long flight and the time change, landed in St. Louis at 5:30 a.m. Kijima slept about 10 minutes on the plane, got home and slept from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then went to CityPark and played 45 minutes for City2 in its Next Pro season opener, which kicked off at 6 p.m.

Two games in two states in less than 24 hours, with a four-hour plane flight in between. That couldn’t have been easy.

“It was the time of my life,” Kijima said. “I would sacrifice to play football.”

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That may be all you need to know about Kijima, who came to America from Yokohama, Japan, at the age of 12 to get better at soccer. When he was in college, he would train at 3 a.m. and then watch games online until 7 a.m. He loves his soccer.

“I’ll probably never leave the game,” he said.

Kijima scored his first professional goal five minutes after he took his first step onto the field, but that was the only thing sudden about his start. The rest was a long climb that played out over more than a decade as Kijima, 21, has grown as both a player and person.

“As a freshman,” said Bobby Muuss, Kijima’s coach at Wake Forest, “I looked at him and said, ‘You are a large onion. Every year, we’re going to keep pulling layers back, and we’re going to get to the core of you.’ ”

That process is still going on, but already, there have been plenty of layers pulled back on Kijima to get him where he is today. When he was 9, he went to a soccer camp run by English club Manchester United. On his first day there, three other campers stole his suitcase and dumped its contents in the hallway, and he said he was bullied the whole time.

“It’s easy to say I was born inside that dark and rainy environment,” he said. “I’ve trained myself to not let anybody else do things like that anymore. … But you look at it now, I wouldn’t be here without that.”

Sounds like a bad time.

“But it prepares you for life,” he said.

At 12, he moved to his next stop, the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a place where some of the best young athletes in the world go to train and where he once again was on his own. By his own admission, he was not a model student.

“I wouldn’t go to school,” he said. “I’d yell at my teachers, I’d skip training, play video games, all sorts of things that a kid might do.”

And then …

“At 15, something clicked,” he said. “I don’t know what did, but I realized the amount of time and money my parents were putting in for me and investing in me. It came to my mind, I had to take advantage of this as much as possible. I looked at the facilities, not a lot of kids that, even at 15, that’s when I hit the ground running, and that’s when my development began as a soccer player.”

No one said anything to him; no one sat him down for heart-to-heart talk.

“It was an internal thing,” he said. “I’m actually glad nobody told me and I was able to realize on my own because it was a huge step within my maturity, to be able to speak to myself and reflect on my path. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to, and moving forward from there, everything just went up. Still to this day, luckily.”

When he was finishing high school at IMG, only one college offered him a scholarship — Wake Forest, which seems hard to believe for a future first-round pick, but as Muuss said, “Not if you saw him then.” But Muuss saw enough — “You watch him a little bit and (say) OK, not bad” — and saw Kijima’s versatility and offered him a scholarship, though he still didn’t think Kijima would last more than six months.

Thrust into a college environment, Kijima couldn’t be a loner anymore and had to open up with his teammates.

“The first thing that Bobby and everybody else taught me was communicating,” Kijima said. “Because of growing up by myself and being so defensive and having survival instincts, it was difficult for me to trust people. It was maneuvering through that, and now you have to be kind to people instead of you didn’t have to do that because nobody was kind to me at first. It was very difficult my first and second year. Still to this day, they think I’m weird over at Wake Forest, in a good way now. The first two years, they thought I was weird in a bad way, but slowly it turned into a good way.”

And then came the next change: Kijima played soccer, but he didn’t live soccer. His knowledge of the game came from what he saw on the field in his games and what coaches told him in training. Muuss told him to watch more soccer.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’ll show you.’ » Kijima said. “Started maybe 3 a.m., 3 to 7, I would watch three different games in three different perspectives, that’s how I increased my knowledge of the game. … I read books, tactical books, autobiographies, read a lot of articles, Twitter feed. That’s all I look at. Instead of scrolling through Instagram, I scroll through tactics, highlights, things like that, all roots from the love of the game. Just a continuous growth of knowledge and adding to your library.”

Indeed, Kijima’s Twitter feed is an advanced class in soccer tactics. Muuss, one of Kijima’s biggest fans, took some players who didn’t go home for spring break up to his cabin last year, and while others were sitting around talking, Kijima was watching games on Wyscout, a soccer scouting and analysis service. That knowledge was also shaping Kijima’s play on the field.

“While you’re playing, it looks like you’re watching film,” he said. “So it’s like the play slows down, if you’re in first-person view and you have the ball, at that moment you understand, like a flash of light, the tactical view as well. … Now it’s a matter of how fast you can make that decision, how fast you can execute that decision. So it helps a lot with decision making and I guess composure on the ball helps a lot as well.”

Kijima was also noted within the club for his sleep schedule: from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. (« It was hard to find him a roommate, » Muuss said.) Along with watching games, he’d work out in those early morning hours. When he became a junior and played a bigger role in the team, Muuss imposed a rule: He was welcome to train at 3 a.m., but he couldn’t do it alone.

“On Friday nights when everybody would go out to party and they’d come back at 3:30 a.m., they’d see me coming back from training,” he said. “They’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I just trained; I’m getting better.’ To mess with their mind a little bit. It didn’t lead to them doing the same thing, but I think I got a lot of respect, to maybe where they think I’m weird in a good way.”

Now, Kijima is a professional soccer player, the fulfillment of a dream. The MLS season is a long one, with training camp starting in January and the championship game in December. That’s perfect for Kijima.

“I can’t wait for this long season to continue,” he said, “and experience the pro season, which I dreamed of for 15 years.”

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