Kyle Nakazawa sprinted onto the pitch at full speed, his cleats seemingly gliding over the grass, almost as if he was running from something.
No one was chasing him, though. In fact, Nakazawa had just done the hunting, chasing down his lifelong dream by being summoned off the bench to make his professional debut. A mere 15 miles separated him from his hometown of Palos Verdes Estates.
With a quick glance and a good-to-see-you nod at Michael Stephens ““ a former UCLA teammate now sporting the opposing team’s colors ““ Nakazawa’s memorable year came full circle.
“It was just like another day in practice,” he said.
With a hard slide and an alarming whistle, Nakazawa had arrived, drawing both a yellow card from the match’s official and ire from the Los Angeles Galaxy fans at the Home Depot Center.
California soccer fans booing a California boy.
Must have been worth it, right?
“Absolutely,” he said, following the Philadelphia Union’s 3-1 loss in early May. “Every moment of it.”
It’s a dream that keeps getting better and better for the 22-year-old. Since that unforgettable night in Carson, Nakazawa has made three starts for the Union, Major League Soccer’s newest expansion squad, which made him the 33rd overall selection in the draft.
He hasn’t necessarily put up mind-numbing statistics (no points in 275 career minutes tell the tale), but the rookie has a promising future on the league’s youngest team.
“I’m just focusing on things day by day,” Nakazawa said. “That’s the most important thing right now.”
The repertoire he displayed at UCLA’s Drake Stadium ““ the carefree demeanor, dazzling ball-handling skills, precise accuracy and powerful right leg ““ made it all possible.
As a senior with the Bruins in the 2009 season, Nakazawa scored 12 goals and added seven assists on his way to being named a semifinalist for the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy. He was an All-American and an All-Pac-10 performer, leading the conference with 31 points on his way to twice being named National Player of the Week.
Nakazawa nearly led UCLA to its first national title since 2002, but the Bruins fell in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
Not bad for a player who was severely limited by a lingering back injury the year before.
“I just tried to focus on what I could control,” Nakazawa said.
He had played in just 10 games in 2008, a nagging strain never allowing him the chance to regain the touch that made him UCLA’s most valuable player in 2007 as only a sophomore. He scored just one goal as a junior, but it was a beauty.
Setting up about 30 yards from goal, Nakazawa hooked a right-footed free kick over the wall of defenders and past a diving goalkeeper to send the Bruins into mass hysteria ““ a goal that would clinch the Pac-10 title.
His senior year was filled with these types of moments ““ an effort coach Jorge Salcedo needed from the veteran when fellow fourth-year players Stephens and goalkeeper Brian Perk were called to compete for the U.S. national team at the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt.
In all, Nakazawa played a role ““ either by scoring or assisting ““ in 61 percent of UCLA’s 31 goals.
Stephens, the 2008 Pac-10 Player of the Year, perhaps best summed up Nakazawa’s professional debut.
“When I saw him come in, it was cool,” he said. “It was weird, but it’s a testament to us and UCLA for producing players that are stepping up.”