Akira Kaji was one of the surprise signings of Chivas USA's 2014 season. The first-ever player from Asia to sign with the club, the 2006 World Cup veteran came in the summer transfer window to help shore up the Goats' right back situation, and he took over the position completely after reaching match fitness in July.
I know Eriq Zavaleta won this site's Defender of the Year award, and one can make good cases for Carlos Bocanegra and Bobby Burling as well, but Kaji deserves to be in the conversation, at the very least, and could very well be the best midseason signing in MLS to go under the radar.
The problem, of course, was that Chivas' defensive record was so poor, with the club narrowly missing out as having the worst goals allowed stats over the course of the season in the league. Can one truly rave about a defender when the defense is so statistically bad? It doesn't really make sense.
And yet...I would argue that Kaji improved CUSA's defense considerably, even if it wasn't revealed through the numbers. At the very least, opponents lining up on the left side no longer had a field day in running at converted midfielder Eric Avila, mostly-left back Donny Toia, or any other options who lined up at right back before Kaji's arrival.
In other words, having an actual right back in the position seemed to work wonders. Add to that the steadiness of Kaji's play, holding steady on the flank when dealing with an attacker, and pinching in to help out the often-overmatched center backs when the situation called for it, and the move certainly belongs with those of Agustin Pelletieri and Felix Borja as experienced foreign players who made an instant impact for Wilmer Cabrera's team in 2014.
Here were Kaji's statistics with Chivas USA:
|Games Played||Games Started||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Shots||SOG||Yellow Cards||Red Cards|
|MLS Regular Season||15||14||1,270||0||1||0||0||1||0|
|U.S. Open Cup||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
What made Kaji's season all the more impressive was his age. At 34, one expects a newcomer to struggle to adjust to a new situation, especially considering this was his first-ever time playing away from Japan, and to also get tired or deal with small injuries that come with age. But after working his way into match fitness following his signing, Kaji ended up playing in 15 of the Goats' final 16 games, an impressive show of durability.
Given the different calendar for seasons in Japan and MLS, perhaps Kaji would not have been available at the start of the 2014 MLS season, but he's the kind of player I wish had been around from the beginning. Would a full season with him around have completely altered Chivas USA's prospects? No. But Avila could have been involved with the attack from the start of the season, and Kaji could have locked down right back and made it a relative position of strength all season long, and who knows, that might have led to a few more points on the season.
Kaji has not been picked up by another MLS team since Chivas folded, and it's unclear if he'll be back in the league in 2015. If he doesn't come back, I think that would be a shame. Yes, he's getting older, but another full back who joined the league late in his career, Vancouver Whitecaps' Young-Pyo Lee, played pretty well in MLS until he was 36. I think Kaji has some miles left on his legs, and can help out a number of teams, especially because full back tends to be one of the trickiest positions to fill, not only in MLS but in soccer overall. Having a right back specialist who adjusted to MLS reasonably well is not a bad option when looking for talent.
Like many of his teammates, however, Kaji will probably be at a disservice for having played for Chivas USA. That sounds harsh, but the club picked up the reputation, including within MLS circles, of being a black hole, and I'm afraid those players who did distinguish themselves in a good way (not named Dan Kennedy or Erick Torres) will probably suffer from player personnel types simply not paying attention to the team, much like just about everyone. It's a bitter reality, and it shouldn't be this way, but nothing in what happened to Chivas USA should have gone down like it did.
Above all, however, Kaji's skill, steadiness, and experience were welcome additions to Chivas USA, on and off the field. He may have been a surprise signing, but the right back acquitted himself well in his stint in California, and here's hoping he'll find another team soon.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!