Thinking outside the box

A trip to Europe as a youngster opened Yuta Nomura’s eyes to the possibilities football could open up for him, and earlier this year the latest twist in the 28-year-old’s career saw him hired as a coach in the MLS… (日本語版)

This year shone a light on the growing presence of Japanese players abroad, with the coronavirus pandemic meaning the only national team games played were contested by squads of those based overseas.

Not so long ago it wouldn’t have been possible for a Japan coach to select such a group, but it isn’t only the star names from the Samurai Blue carving out careers for themselves beyond these shores and a whole range of Japanese players are testing themselves at various levels all around the globe. Some, like Yuta Nomura, are also beginning to earn reputations as coaches.

Nomura grew up in Tokyo and played in goal for Mitsubishi Yowa until he graduated high school, at which point he decided he wanted to leave Japan to pursue a playing career.

“While I was at Mitsubishi Yowa we were fortunate to go to Germany to play in an international tournament, and that kind of opened my eyes and I wanted to play overseas,” he explained. “We were the only team that couldn’t speak English and I was so annoyed by that and felt I wanted to speak English and also that I wanted to play abroad.”

He was soon to get his wish, and after taking part in a showcase in the USA he was offered a place at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky. Things went well for him there and he immediately established himself as first choice goalkeeper as the college won its ninth NAIA National Championship.

“How I play was definitely eye opening for American soccer,” Nomura says of his technical style. “Japanese goalkeepers are very comfortable with their feet, and that’s something that goalkeepers in America weren’t very good at. A lot of teams and coaches were impressed with how I played.”

The limit on foreign players on MLS rosters made it difficult for Nomura to earn a contract in the US upon graduation, however, so he decided instead to head to Sweden. After two and half years playing in the lower leagues on modest contracts he started to wonder if he may need to try something else when, at the age of just 26, he was sounded out about the possibility of returning to the States as a coach.

“They wanted a goalkeeper coach to teach their goalkeepers to play out from the back,” he said of the unexpected offer. “I wouldn’t say Americans don’t, but Japanese players in general have strong fundamentals – they can play, they can pass, they can catch – so those were the things that kind of stood out and that was the reason they wanted to have me.”

While it meant making the difficult decision to hang up his playing gloves, Nomura was resolved to grasp the opportunity of making an early start on a coaching career with both hands, and was soon back in the US and passing on his knowledge to the young hopefuls at the University of Central Arkansas while studying for a Masters degree in College Student Personnel Administration (CSPA).

“That helped me a lot – how you talk to students, how you talk to players,” he said of his studies. “It gives a different perspective on the sympathy to show to players.”

That approach enabled Nomura to build upon his reputation with Arkansas, and led to him taking up his first role as a professional coach with the reserve team of MLS outfit New England Revolution earlier this year.

“Every time when I’m at the office I feel like it’s still a dream,” he says of working alongside the first team goalkeeper coach Kevin Hitchcock, who played for Chelsea and coached at the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, and West Ham United, and ex-US national team manager Bruce Arena. “I’m aware that I’m not an experienced guy or wasn’t a top goalkeeper, but I have something that other goalkeeper coaches don’t have, and I try not to take anything for granted. I’m open-minded and I try to learn from everyone – I think that’s my strength.”

One area he pushed himself in in particular was with regards to learning English, something he believes is crucial for any Japanese player wanting to achieve success abroad.

“I studied a lot when I was back home, but obviously speaking and studying are two totally different things and I struggled a lot. The good thing is I was in Kentucky – there’s not a lot of Japanese people around and I was determined to focus on English. I think that helped me a lot.

“I think lots of the goalkeepers in Japan can play abroad for sure. Technically they are outstanding, but I think things like the language are very key. If you don’t understand the language, if you don’t understand what the coach demands, you aren’t going to be able to play. And that’s something Japan needs to step up, don’t just focus on football itself but I think they need to focus more on outside of soccer.

“Because I’m a coach now I can see that coaches in Japan need to go abroad more. I know the JFA is working with Frans Hoek, who is a Dutch legend, and while I think it’s important to have Frans in we also need to go out and touch what kind of football they’re playing [in the world], what kind of methodology they’re using and bring it back. That’s how I see it.”

It is perhaps with this in mind that Nomura picks a name from left field when asked who he sees as Japan’s next number one.

“Not for now, but I like Leo Kokubu at Benfica. I’ve seen his videos, and he can be the next number one goalkeeper for the national team because of his size, his athleticism. He’s number one for the [Benfica] B-Team, and I believe he’s training with the first team. I’ve seen him training and in games, and he’s a next level goalkeeper. He’s very athletic, very tall, comfortable playing out from the back with his right or left foot, and he’s good in the air.”

At just 19 Kokubo still has a lot to learn, but with these key playing ingredients in place Nomura thinks the most important aspect for him and all goalkeepers to focus on is with regards to the psychological side of the game.

“I believe 80 percent of goalkeeping is mental, 10 percent is technical, and another five or 10 percent is understanding of the game,” he explains.

“That’s something that I talk to my goalkeepers about back in New England – you’ve got to put yourself in an uncomfortable zone, that’s the only way you can learn and you can improve.”

Having thrown himself in at the deep end on more than one occasion Nomura certainly proves that point, and, much like Kokubu, his career trajectory will certainly be worth keeping an eye on.

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