Returning to our series reviewing Chivas USA players for the 2011 season, we turn today to midfielder Paulo Nagamura. The Brazilian midfielder had what can be best described as a very frustrating season, as injuries curtailed his impact. Playing just 544 minutes in 11 appearances (6 starts) in 2011, Nagamura never really established himself as surely he, as well as the coaching staff, would have hoped.
Nagamura started the season as one of the few holdovers that featured regularly the past few seasons, and based on the playing time he got when he was available, it seemed coach Robin Fraser valued his skills, particularly his combination of creative attacking play and hard-nosed midfield defensive play. But a calf injury suffered in the preseason lingered for a long time into the season. He played only once in the first eleven matches of the season, but his short stint in that one match, on April 16 against the Vancouver Whitecaps, aggravated the injury and led to another stretch in the trainer's room.Nagamura enjoyed his best stretch of the season in June, when he started five consecutive matches between June 4 (against the Portland Timbers) and July 2 (against the Chicago Fire). His only scoring contribution on the season came in the June 4 match, when he assisted on Marcos Mondaini's winner in a 1-0 victory for the Goats. It seemed during that stretch that Robin Fraser enjoyed Nagamura's contributions, and he was rounding into full fitness. The problem was that his stint in the starting lineup coincided with a slump by the team, who only picked up four points in that five game stretch. During the next three games, he was left on the bench, and Chivas got five points. I don't think Nagamura was the reason Chivas struggled, as defensive errors were much more significant than anything in the midfield, but I suppose you could say that his inclusion upset the lineup and contributed to a lack of cohesion for the squad. In particular, it also seemed like there was a struggle for who would be the central midfielder moving forward, Nagamura or Simon Elliott. With Elliott providing more defensive cover (despite some significant defensive errors) and Nagamura providing more creative spark, there was something of a stalemate, and Fraser tried to figure out which player (or whether both could be on the field at the same time) was best for the team.
For the six matches from July 23 to August 24, Nagamura started once, entered as a sub three times, and didn't see the field twice. In that stretch, Chivas won two, lost two, and had two draws. His place on the team was not assured, but unfortunately, another injury ended his season, when he broke his foot in late-August and had season-ending surgery. As I wrote at the time the news was reported, a broken foot can be very problematic for soccer players, obviously, and given that and his recent injury history, Nagamura needed to ensure he was fully healed before trying to get back in the lineup.
Prior to the season, it seemed Nagamura would be an integral part of the Chivas lineup, but because of the persistent injuries, I thought there was a good chance he would be left unprotected in the recent MLS Expansion Draft. Instead, the club decided to protect him. Although all players can potentially have injury-derailed seasons and make a full comeback in later years, I thought there was a decent chance Nagamura would be sold or cut from the team in this offseason. Just because he was protected doesn't mean he will be staying with the team, as there's plenty of time to make a move, but his injured foot may scare off potential suitors. Still, given that Nagamura makes a significant amount of money ($225,000 base salary in 2011) I assume the front office will either plan to have him play major minutes in 2011 or reduce or cut his salary from the club's payroll.
As a result, following a frustrating 2011 campaign, comes an uncertain offseason for Nagamura. If he can regain his fitness and stay healthy in 2012, maybe he can be next season's version of Dan Kennedy. For the sake of a team seeking to improve next year, let's all hope Nagamura can provide key contributions to Chivas moving forward.