COLUMBIA — Two Truman State players had Yudai Yamaguchi trapped on the left sideline.
The Columbia College junior midfielder had teammate Dylan Barduzzi open about five yards upfield, but the defense was closing in and the passing lane was gone. Yamaguchi, still appearing calm, turned to the right. Suddenly, Yamaguchi jumped up. While keeping both legs straight, he scooted the ball behind his left leg, perfectly delivering a pass to Barduzzi, who was free to attack. The defenders were left out of position and stunned by Yamaguchi's play.
"Plays like that is when you see when the guy is good. Because in details like that, you gotta think so fast, and you have no time for that," Barduzzi said. "That was sick. That was amazing."
Even the visiting crowd reacted with "oohs" after the play. Columbia College head coach John Klein praised the midfielder's creativity combined with his exceptional skill. Assistant head coach Jon Desha said Yamaguchi's love for the game drives him to work hard on his skills.
"I love (Brazilian soccer star) Ronaldinho," Yamaguchi said. "I watch his YouTube movies all the time and steal skills."
Not everybody can steal skills from a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year. But years of extra practice enable Yamaguchi, who grew up in Tokyo, to perform tricks like "the elastic."
When the rest of his teammates head home, Yamaguchi stays after practice and practices the stuff he watches in the videos. He uses Columbia College's indoor practice facility during the offseason to do the same.
"He works so much on that all that little skill stuff," Klein said. "He'll spend hours in the turf room all alone in the winter, just working on his own skills."
The coaches have always recognized Yamaguchi's skill set, but he's adapted his style of play this season. In his first two years, his dribbling ability led the coaches to play him at forward; after last year's disappointing season, they moved him to center midfielder.
"We just hadn't identified where his best spot was, but I think we found it," Klein said.
Yamaguchi has facilitated the offense during the Cougar's 7-1 start to the season. His quick thinking and imagination help him see scoring opportunities — even if it means using his leg like a pitching wedge to lob the ball over a defender at the last possible second.
"He finds little nooks and crannies, little gaps," Klein said. "He has to be the best in playing in tight spaces of any player I've ever seen, even at the professional level."
Yamaguchi said he has to know where everyone is before he gets the ball. This helps him stay one step ahead of the defense. Yamaguchi also said he anticipates where teammates will be, allowing him make passes without looking.
So far, he leads the team with six assists through eight games. Two of them came on game-winning goals by Barduzzi, who said he scored off of the "perfect" passes.
"Almost anything that he does that's related to scoring a goal is spectacular," Klein said. "He catches the eye of all the fans and all the opposing coaches."
Yamaguchi's teammates also enjoy seeing his exciting plays.
"I love to see that, I love to watch that," Barduzzi said. "That's what is fun in soccer."