COLUMBIA - Columbia College’s sophomore Yudai Yamaguchi never believed he would play soccer in the United States.
The Cougars’ forward grew up in Chiba, a city near Tokyo, playing baseball like his father. Yamaguchi’s soccer origins began just as a casual invitation from a friend to come out and play when he was 6 years old.
“My friend started to play and he invited me to play soccer,” Yamaguchi said.
It quickly turned into a passion as he soon decided to play club soccer and decided to abandon baseball because he found it boring and not active enough for his liking.
Yamaguchi played until the end of high school, but still didn’t plan to further his soccer career. He eventually decided against quitting when a friend told him he could learn English in the United States by playing soccer.
Yamaguchi said he wanted to learn how to speak English in the future, but he never expected to be able to both play soccer and learn the language.
When he was 19 years old, he got a tryout in Miami in front of a number of college coaches. Holy Names University in Oakland selected him, but the coach retracted Yamaguchi’s scholarship offer for a reason still unknown to Yamaguchi and directed him to play for Alliant International University in San Diego.
Alliant International accepted Yamaguchi, but he didn't have enough college credit hours to play on the soccer team.
“I couldn’t play the season because there were no English as a second language classes,” he said. “I couldn’t pass whole classes.”
This forced Yamaguchi to return to Japan where he returned to playing club soccer.
Then at 23, he got another tryout in Miami and attracted the attention of many teams and received several offers, including one from Columbia College.
Yamaguchi said Columbia College head coach John Klein’s strong passion for the sport was the deciding factor in his choice to play for the Cougars despite not even seeing the campus before making his decision.
He arrived at Columbia College in the spring of 2009 and started playing the following fall season. He recorded six assists and nine goals. He also nearly scored the equalizing goal during the waning seconds of the second round match of the 2009 NAIA National tournament. It was waved off because of an offside penalty, effectively ending the Cougars’ season.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, who thought he was onside after capitalizing on a loose ball rebounding from a previous shot. “Just unlucky.”
For the upcoming 2010 campaign, Yamaguchi returns to a team ranked in the NAIA’s preseason top-25 poll after a 3-0 victory in last year’s national tournament opening round matchup against Midland Lutheran College (Neb.).
“We’re just really excited,” Klein said. “It’s been a great preseason. The guys worked hard. We’re looking forward to an exciting year.”
The Cougars begin their season at home against John Brown University (Ark.) Saturday at 7 p.m.