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Where EAST meets the Northwest

NEW SEASON STARTS. The New England Revolutionís Lee Nguyen (#24) joined the club in March of 2012. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Luis Robles of the New York Bulls (outstretched in air) signed with his squad in August of 2012. Both players have been integral to their teamís success in Major League Soccer. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Toronto FC acquired Tsubasa Endoh with the ninth overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Endoh, who was born in Tokyo, previously played for the University of Maryland Terrapins and Team Japanís junior teams. (Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #5 (March 7, 2016), pages 8 & 13.

Asian talent aids major-league soccer teams now and in the future

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Unlike some sports, Major League Soccer (MLS) does not have Asian talent in great numbers, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up with quality. Current Asian players are among the best in the league, and two recent acquisitions should keep their ranks strong in the future.

The most exciting Asian MLS player is the New England Revolutionís Lee Nguyen, a dynamic attacking midfielder. Nguyen, a Vietnamese American, played in Holland, Denmark, and Vietnam before coming to New England in 2012.

Nguyen scored five goals and assisted in two more that season, earning the fan MVP award. Nguyen made good on that title in 2013 by helping the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Then, Nguyen exploded in 2014, scoring 18 goals, a Revolution record and an MLS record for a player who played largely as a midfielder. He scored 12 of those goals in the final 14 games and the Revs again reached the playoffs, only to fall to the L.A. Galaxy in the final.

In 2015, Nguyen scored seven goals and notched a career-best 10 assists, becoming the first New England player to register three assists in a game. For the third straight season, the Revolution reached the playoffs, but they lost in the first round. Nguyenís continuing development will be crucial to the teamís success.

Playing alongside Nguyen in the midfield is Japanís Daigo Kobayashi, who has been equally instrumental in the success of the Revs. Known for his slick passing skills, Kobayashi played professionally in Japan, Norway, and Greece then signed with the Vancouver Whitecaps. Kobayashi scored two goals and assisted on four more with the Whitecaps in 2013 before being traded to New England.

Kobayashi appeared in all 34 of the Revolutionís games in 2014, the second New England player ever to achieve that feat. Though he tallied just four assists, half of them were on game-winning goals ó one of them by Nguyen.

In 2015, Kobayashi missed eight games due to injury, starting in 11 of his 21 appearances. He had an impact nonetheless, assisting on two goals, including another game-winner by Nguyen. Now 33 years old, Kobayashi should see a further decline in playing time, but his veteran presence will be important for a team that has only three players over the age of 30.

Another star Asian player, goalkeeper Luis Robles of the New York Red Bulls, will do his best to shut down the Revolutionís scorers. Robles, a Korean American and a University of Portland graduate, played in Germanyís Bundesliga for five years before the New York Red Bulls signed him.

Since becoming the teamís full-time keeper in 2013, Robles has played every minute of New Yorkís matches. He saved 111 shots in 2014 and won 18 games in 2015, both among the top in the league. Last season, Robles was voted MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and was a member of the Best XI squad.

Despite Roblesís excellence, New York has yet to win the MLS Cup. Theyíve made the playoffs every season since Robles joined the team, but they havenít been able to escape the conference playoffs. Having the stalwart Robles in the net will make the Red Bulls a favorite to reach the playoffs again ó and perhaps reach the top.

Midfielder Paulo Nagamura and Sporting Kansas City also departed the playoffs too soon in 2015, losing in the opening round to eventual champion Portland. Nagamura, who is of Brazilian and Japanese descent, knows how to advance in the playoffs. He joined the L.A. Galaxy in 2005, the year they won the MLS Cup.

Since then, Nagamura played for Toronto and Chivas USA before joining Kansas City in 2012. One year after he donned their kit, Sporting KC won the MLS Cup, Nagamuraís second. Kansas City has signed the 12-year veteran for another season in 2016 and they will look forward to his championship presence as they seek another MLS Cup win.

The most exciting Asian additions in 2016 come to Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps via the amateur draft and an international signing. Toronto has only reached double digits in wins three times in its nine-year history, peaking last season with 15 wins, when they reached the playoffs for the first time.

Toronto FC did not advance, but the club still secured the ninth overall pick in this yearís SuperDraft, which they used to obtain Tsubasa Endoh. Endoh, a Tokyo-born forward, has played for the University of Maryland Terrapins and Team Japanís junior teams. With the Terrapins, Endoh scored 12 goals and notched 16 assists, earning offensive MVP honors in the Big Ten championship and reaching the 2013 NCAA final.

In the scouting combine before the draft, Endoh was also named MVP, which explains his excellent draft position. Torontoís scoring attack already includes U.S. menís team star Michael Bradley, veteran French midfielder Benoit Cheyrou, and 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco. Adding Endoh, who can play as a midfielder or forward, could help Toronto continue its rise.

Last but not least, the Vancouver Whitecaps recently signed Japanese striker Masato Kudo. The 25-year-old Kudo has played six seasons with Kashiwa Reysol, a team in Japanís J1 League. Despite his youth, he is Kashiwaís all-time leading scorer, with 92 goals in 260 appearances, and he helped the team win the 2011 J1 League championship and the 2013 J. League Cup.

In addition, Kudo has two goals in four appearances for the Japanese national team. Able to score with either foot, Kudo brings an appealing versatility to a Vancouver squad that scored in the middle of the pack in 2015 among MLS teams and ranked near the bottom in assists.

With the MLS growing to 24 teams by 2020, making it the largest top-flight soccer league in the world, teams will find themselves looking increasingly to the east to fill their squads. Then, the quantity will certainly rise to match the quality of Asian MLS talent.

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