Yuki Nagasato interview: Rhythm meets life at the serendipity cookout for world champion Red Star
While the Chicago Red Stars have been chief beneficiaries of her talents in recent years, Yuki Nagasato enjoys popularity in the women’s game that seems to transcend any team allegiances. The Japanese forward had already been to the summit of her sport long before her US move, but bonded by battle scars, baristas and musical keys, she found a spark to help shoot this particular leg of her world tour to new heights.
It was two days after her 24th birthday when Yuki Nagasato and her Japan teammates hoisted the FIFA Women’s World Cup high above their heads into the Frankfurt night after a titanic tussle with the United States went the distance. That 2011 achievement is one she could never surpass in terms of prestige, and for its wider national significance at the time, too.
Where we find the majestic attacking schemer in the tender stages of 2020 is on a personal stage she has never felt more in step with. One of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)’s premier performers, she is a world-class attraction in a league that maintains a hefty case for the most competitive in the women’s game.
While her professional exploits are bringing joy to many, extracurricular endeavour has been pivotal in letting her unearth previously unfelt freedom and contentment. In the Windy City, the Chicago Red Stars player’s music love has truly caught fire in recent times, most notably as drummer/keyboardist with a blues/punk/garage rockin’ four-piece that soccer fans and media outlets alike have been intrigued by – Bruised Broken BanD.
“The music makes me forget everything that has happened on the field,” she explains. “I’ve never had that before, outside of soccer.”
“Before Chicago, I never had the time to not think about soccer. Playing music makes it easy to forget my job, which I should have had before.
“You know, for switching the brain? For me to be able to focus on just one thing; soccer or real life.
“Music helped me shut out everything else. Currently, I’m listening to Foo Fighters.
“My boyfriend introduced me to them, and as a new drummer, I feel really inspired by their sound and I want to produce that feeling on my own. I’m also listening to Japanese artists Kenshi Yonezu, SMAP, and Mr. Children.”
Vocalist/bassist in the band, Jon Rodriquez is the boyfriend Yuki alludes to. A Chicago native, he was in the midst of his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) recovery when he met the UEFA Women’s Champions League winner – well acquainted herself with that least welcome of recurring women’s soccer house guests.
“We met at a barbecue in summer of 2018; a party I wasn’t even supposed to be at,” Jon recalled. “I happened to not be working as a result of just having ACL surgery and our conversation started with her telling me about her own ACL surgery when she was 15.”
“Her English was pretty limited back then, so she initiated conversation by dipping her hands in the water of the inflatable pool and started giving me a mohawk. Her routine is that she likes to go for a walk every morning, so the first two years in Chicago, she walked to a coffee shop down the street from her apartment.
“She eventually made friends with the baristas and they invited her to this barbecue. One of the baristas is a student in my martial arts school, so that’s how I got invited.”
Jon made the voyage to Japan with Yuki during the current NWSL off-season and has been intermittently studying the language since they met.
“Initially it was a lot of word-searching and using my old theatre skills to paint the picture of what she was trying to say,” he laughs. “After half a year or so, her English got significantly better, which she claims is the result of our texting.”
“She’s still studying English, looking to pass an exam soon to be able to qualify for professional board exams over here.”
With Jon telling Yuki about the jam sessions he would have with guitar buddy Matt Hareford, the former Chelsea player’s interest was suitably perked.
“She mentioned that she played piano, so I dusted off my old keyboard, plugged it in, and our first practice together was just over six hours. That’s when we wrote our first song ‘Rosie’s’ together.”
The band also features vocalist Gina Rinaldi – “She joined up with us after a friend sympathised for our failed Craigslist search for singers. She’s my old boss’s good friend, and now our friend.”
BBB played in Chicago last Friday at The Frontier, a storefront blackbox theatre. Set up by the Red Stars’ official supporters’ group, Chicago Local 134, the event was opened with a performance from fellow local band Scout Ripley, who feature women’s soccer media member Claire Watkins.
Speaking in the lead-up to the show, the first public performance for BBB, Jon said: “Tickets sold out in less than 12 hours; we didn’t even get a chance to invite our friends and family. Guess the soccer community is really excited to see Yuki play!”
The 132-cap, 58-goal former Japan star is indeed a headline act. After playing a smaller part in Chicago’s 2017 season, in which she featured as a sub in the play-off semi-final loss at North Carolina Courage, her star shone brighter in 2018.
While the season ended at the same stage and to the same opposition, only the Courage’s Jess McDonald registered more assists in the regular season than Yuki and Portland Thorns’ Tobin Heath (seven), with three goals as well from Yuki. The Red Stars have reached the play-offs in each of her seasons so far, but 2019 was the first time in club history they had made it to the year’s showdown encounter, ultimately defeated in the Championship game by the formidable North Carolina.
As well as eight goals to put her among the most prolific NWSL performers, Yuki had a league-leading eight assists in the regular season – but (most) fans don’t fall in love with stats. The Atsugi native embodies a zest that radiates and lets everyone else in on it with her.
For the exclusive few who were there, and even those who weren’t, it roundly captured and satisfied the imagination to see her perform with her band at last week’s event, and Yuki remembers being the starry-eyed one herself not so long ago.
“(Japanese boy band) SMAP, that was my biggest concert ever; I was 26 years old. I really liked (SMAP singer) Takuya Kimura.
“That was a four-hour concert. I couldn’t stop yelling, jumping, shouting; wow, I was making sweat.
“I was very tired and sore the next day; my calves hurt from jumping and it hurt to talk. I woke up with a feeling ‘was it real?!’
“It happened so quick. It was very exciting to go there, but they broke up after three years.
“The next show planned is Hella Mega Tour (featuring Green Day, Fall Out Boy and Weezer) in August. I grew up listening to Green Day and I am very excited to see them for the first time.
“I also saw Aerosmith when visiting Las Vegas and I would really like to see Jimmy Eat World.”
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It is interesting that America has helped instigate such a sea change for her. Yuki had already played in Germany and England before she arrived, split over the course of seven years, and it was in the opening stages that she reached the pinnacle of European club football.
A three-time consecutive Frauen-Bundesliga winner with 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, she lifted the Champions League with them in 2010 after triumphing against a club that has largely had the trophy on lockdown in the years since – Olympique Lyonnais. With five players unsuccessful in the penalty shootout in the Getafe final, Yuki was one of the 13 who were, with Turbine winning 7-6 after a goalless game.
Star-spangled as she now is, she comes from a markedly different culture to the US; one that so many of us in the western world admire, but far fewer know the true intricacies of. She notes the contrast between locker rooms with Japanese and American teams as she sheds some musical light on the Nadeshiko’s game-day inner sanctum.
“Our culture is not like American style; we don’t like loud music before the game. Some people would have headphones, others would speak very quietly, but we – me and a couple of other players – would try to get more team-building, like karaoke.
“World Cup 2015, that tournament we played music before the warming up. The DJ was (Shinobu) Ohno; every time before a game she played ‘Faces Places’ by Globe.
“I sang before every warm-up to make everyone laugh, because everyone was always nervous. That was my way of team-building/sticking together.”
A typical part of learning is imitating what we see. There are millions who love the sport who will be able to recount times they saw a great goal on TV or in the stadium before heading out into the back yard or the nearest open space to try and replicate it. Like a Yuki Nagasato diving header against Washington Spirit, perhaps?
Music listening holds a universe of possibilities, though to see it performed can really bring on home the allure of an artist or collective. Yuki recalls trying to recreate some of that herself, as she takes it back to the first music she ever bought.
“It was a CD! The first CD I bought was Ryuichi Kawamura, who is vocals for (Japanese rock band) Luna Sea; my favourite song on the CD is ‘Love is..’
“Then I was into (Japanese boy band) Da Pump; I bought every single album/CD! I also tried to learn their dancing.
“At some point, I stopped being into them after they broke up.”
Just like bands and groups split, so do teams. While the likes of Yuki, Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama are no longer with the Japan team (or playing at all), what they achieved together in 2011 is in the books forever.
Eliminating World Cup hosts and holders Germany in the quarter-final, 2003 finalists Sweden followed, before Norio Sasaki’s team were the last ones standing after that shootout against the US. To see Japan crowned the world’s best held even more meaning after the barely comprehensible devastation of that year’s Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
A silver medal winner at the 2012 Olympics, Yuki won silver again in the 2015 World Cup, in a tournament that saw her younger sister Asano Nagasato, who retired at 27 in 2016, also selected in Japan’s squad. If Yuki could put any band back together, see any artist from all-time, or just watch a current act perform, who would she want to take her place in the crowd for?
“That’s a good question. Queen – I really felt inspired by the movie Bohemian Rhapsody.
“I really didn’t know much about Queen before I saw the movie. I got the feeling that they changed the world; that’s why I just want to see top musicians.”
Although she stopped learning guitar a few years ago, mainly because her fingers hurt, Yuki told last season how drumming had helped her feel faster on the field – once the initial groin soreness had subsided. Along with another Foo Fighters mention, she shares some of the beatmasters she has been inspired by, though she respectfully declines the hypothetical offer to actually become one of them.
“I don’t want to be anyone else, I want to be who I am, but drummers from Queen, Jimmy Eat World, Green Day, Foo Fighters and Luna Sea.”
Although she had several Japanese titles to her name when she first went to play in Germany, Yuki had actually contacted clubs herself with a highlight reel. Venturing to a new country, the desire is to show what you are all about in terms of skill and capability, and to craft a little corner of belonging away from home in the process.
In the beginning at Turbine Potsdam, Yuki was not able to articulate herself, and had no compatriot to lean on. While learning German, she decided to study her individual teammates’ respective body language closely to try and get a razor-sharp understanding of their styles and tendencies. She put much of her subsequent personal success with the club down to being able to anticipate them so well in a game.
She was the Frauen-Bundesliga’s top scorer (18) in 2012/13 as they came 2nd to the team she would join in 2015 – VfL Wolfsburg. With two years at 2015 Champions League winners 1. FFC Frankfurt the prelude to her Chicago chapter, she had her first taste of Australia’s W-League in a loan adventure just over a year ago.
A scorer in the 2-1 semi-final loss to Sydney, she was a stellar name for Brisbane Roar to sign, but World Cup winner or not, she was up for the challenge of properly introducing herself to her counterparts.
“When I played for Brisbane, every new player had to do an initiation; I decided to sing Macklemore ‘Can’t Hold Us.’ I wore a swimming cap with goggles.”
For Chicago, she says the team DJ is Julie Ertz, a Beats & Rhymes FC feature herself back in 2014. Yuki would take another world champion from the Red Stars backline if she was to ever record a song cover with someone she has played alongside in her career.
The player in question was a Turbine Potsdam teammate, and also the one who put the idea to her of signing for Chicago.
“I would record with Alyssa Naeher, because she’s too cool, too serious; I need to see her be goofy. I’m not sure what song; any song, as long as it gets her to be goofy.”
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One other dynamic duo Yuki starred in was alongside Sam Kerr. It was her long-range pass that set up the Aussie goal machine for the winning effort in Chicago’s semi-final with Portland Thorns last season. Kerr, meanwhile, provided the cross for that aforementioned spectacular diving header of Yuki’s against Washington in 2018.
The two of them scored 27 goals between them for the Red Stars in 2019, but season eight of the NWSL will get underway without Kerr, who has been adapting to life in England just recently, following her high-profile switch to Chelsea. The Blues were Yuki’s team once, though in a career brimming with silverware, England did not yield any.
Yuki joined at a time when Emma Hayes’ terrific tenure was in its infancy, though she witnessed Chelsea make the jump to the cusp of their first FA Women’s Super League title, only to be denied on a heartbreaking final day at Manchester City. The women’s team’s infrastructure was comfortably removed from what we see now at Chelsea, and Yuki is honest about the challenges it meant.
“It was a hard time; Chelsea wasn’t as big of a club as they are now. They now have good-quality organisation, good facilities; everything got better.
“When I was there, they were just starting to build up women’s soccer; just having three or four times practice, gym times at 7pm, after everyone had work or school. That schedule was not good for me, but they wanted to have me to assist them with getting better players, better quality, and I tried to help them the best I could.
“The head coach was very passionate and always wanted to achieve to reach the top, and get better players and organisation. I knew that would take time and I knew I didn’t have the patience to see it through.”
She also shares what brightened that time in her life and career as a 26/27-year-old.
“I loved fish and chips! And walking around London city; the city was nice and I met a very good friend there that I still connect with once a year.
“London was a hard time but a good time. I learned so much about what is life and what is football.”
There have been some incredible feats, but a need to roll with the rough as well as the smooth has been essential. In that 2011 World Cup success, Yuki scored Japan’s first of the tournament with a superb first-time lob against New Zealand. To not mention that she had her spot kick saved in the final’s shootout would be airbrushing the experience, though before there was much chance to dwell on it, she was officially part of the sport’s very first Asian world champions.
After her first NWSL season, she attended an English school in Japan to try and accelerate her grasp of the language. Even for the players who routinely light up a game and put smiles on faces, it cannot be underestimated just what a barrier it is to remove when they can finally converse with some confidence during life overseas.
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I’d like to say that I am overflowing with feelings of gratitude a lots for teammates, fans, coaches, all staff, city, family, friends, and other players. But words cannot describe well how much I am grateful to them… . . How wonderful was this season which I’ve ever not seen and felt before. Even we had good and bad time during season and could not carry better results in the final, but I feel we made a lots of greater things more than last season. . . Do you know how lucky and happy I am? My life has been not never like this enjoyable before I came to Chicago. It has been extremely up and harshly down for long time. Still there has been happening little things but year by year, month by month, day by day, I have became to be able to accept and adapt to any matter on/off the field more than before because this environment (people who being around) has taught me a lots and makes me perform pleasantly on the field, like Rock’n’Roll! . . And I personally want to say that @chicagolocal134 did amazing for this season, but specially semi final! That made me feel real “home”. . . Doumo Arigato🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼 Thanks a lots!
Five countries into her club career, Yuki considers what she has learned most so far, away from game tactics, tournaments and league seasons. If there is a Yuki Nagasato way to live – and we know by now there most certainly is – what is it?
“Just spend time doing the things you love to do, and spend time with the people you love to be with. I’m always talking with my inner voice, because thinking and feeling are both needed for growing up and improvement.
“That is my joy, that moment I feel ‘improved’. That is how you know you’re always growing up, because you need emotion; joy, happy, sad, mad.
“I need to know who I am, because I am a human being. Simply put, I want to know about humans.
“Always start with yourself, that is the easy way,” she says with a snap of the fingers and a nod of the head.
It was their older brother Genki, a winger who played in Japan and Thailand, who inspired Yuki and her sister to really follow football, though she also recalls in junior high having to write down what she wanted to be in the future. Handily enough, playing professionally in the US was the answer, fuelled in no small part by the example of Homare Sawa.
Chicago is the first place she has felt fully at ease with her life balance, recognising that she doesn’t want to be merely tunnel-vision-focused on the next game. To settle for being an extra in her own life would never do for this Red Star.
In one final motion-picture snapshot, it is time for Yuki to play ball with the regular closing question on here through the years. In a less familiar wide role last season, she felt herself thriving for Rory Dames’ team, but anything goes positionally in this one.
So, if a small-sided game called, and she needed four teammates from her career to complete her line-up, who are some examples of those who could hang with Yuki on her goofy *pitch*?
“Alyssa Naeher, Anja Mittag, Lira Bajramaj/Alushi, Dzsenifer Marozsán. All these players are able to share the big picture easily and are all skilful, smart and intelligent, with a high football IQ.”
But hold on one last second, where did that Bruised Broken BanD name come from? Well, it is almost as intellectual as Yuki’s team, as Jon explains.
“Matt and I were together for a little over a year before Yuki joined us. Yuki was dealing with a hamstring tear and I was recovering from ACL reconstruction, and Matt injured his hand at a Phil Collins concert; we were all a bit bruised and broken.
“The acronym BBB originally started when Yuki – very lost in translation, we were – asked me what she could do for a muscle cramp after a game. I mentioned bananas have potassium, and drinking more water to hydrate.
“Well, Yuki doesn’t like bananas, so she started calling me Banana Boy. Then on one of our dates, I wore a Chinese zodiac bracelet with the symbol Ox on it.
“In Japanese, it means ‘beef’, so this led to me being called Banana Beef Boy, and since we didn’t have a name for the band, she started calling us Banana Beef Band. Matt and I said no way!
“She just kept poking fun at it until eventually BBB stuck for a while, and then Bruised and Broken seemed fitting, since we were all dealing with injuries.”
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