Before the Red Stars won their semifinal on Sunday, they were going through final game preparations and training.
At the conclusion of one such training, while everyone gathered their belongings and eventually filtered out, Yuki Nagasato was still out on the pitch taking touches on several balls lined up in a row before shooting them into the net. That’s why it takes a few minutes before we actually sit down to chat, Nagasato’s deep dedication. Then she shows her patience and kindness, mixed with a bit of humor only she can bring, when I ask her how she became one of the coolest players in the league: she shrugs me off before saying, “Nah, I’m just a goofy bitch.”
The Japanese international has spent nearly three years in the city of Chicago as a member of the Red Stars and she feels like someone who has made a transformation filled with personal growth outside of being an athlete, something she felt she didn’t always have before she came to Chicago.
“Before I came to Chicago, soccer wasn’t part of life, it was everything,” says Nagasato. “After I came here, I learned soccer is part of life, not everything.”
Nagasato is one of soccer’s most decorated athletes, a World Cup champion with an Olympic silver medal, a Champions League title, and scoring titles. But she says it’s here in Chicago, that she found her biggest reward— a different life perspective.
“[Here] they have family, they have friends, they spend time outside of soccer. They enjoy life. That changed my way of thought—’Oh I can be like that [too].’ Enjoy life, the whole life, don’t just focus on soccer,” she says.
Chicago is home to nearly 3 million people, and is known for a number of iconic and culturally impactful landmarks, foods— and sports. But when I ask Nagasato what her favorite thing about the city is, she takes a brief moment to sit in thought before cracking a big smile to say: “Windy.”
After a bit of laughter, she elaborates that when it comes to Chicago, it’s about the life that she gets to live here. “It’s everything. I like what I do. Playing soccer here, I like my teammates here. I love my life. Hanging with my friends, and my band.”
During her time in Chicago, Nagasato has been a member of “Bruised Broken Band,” who on Instagram describe their sound as “a blend of Blues/Rock-n-Roll, bit a punk...& Garage Rock.”
“I tried playing guitar like five years ago, and my fingers hurt, and I gave up,” she says with quick humor, “but when I started in the band I played keyboards. I always used to play piano.”
“When I was four I used to go to piano school, until I was 15, so I still play piano,” says Nagasto. “But I wanted to challenge myself to something new, so I picked up drums because drummers are cool. When playing drums you need more coordination abilities because you need to use both hands and both feet and different timing, like soccer — it helps me.”
Nagasato says the drums helped her become faster on the pitch this season due to the use of her feet and legs. She had her general training, and she had her drums.
“When I started drumming my groin was really sore because of so much kicking, but when that went away, I could feel my running get faster, so it actually helped!” she says.
While off the pitch, her drum duty and keyboard performances are mostly done among close friends, as the band has only played small private shows they refer to as a “Basement Bash,” but she thinks that maybe they could eventually play public.
“We don’t know yet, but we feel like we are ready for playing public. Maybe next year,” she says, confirming that she intends to still be with the team next season.
“[Being in Chicago] is comfortable. I never had this feeling ever, when living elsewhere. With comfort. When I was in [Europe], I was not comfortable. Like I was always fighting with something,” she says. “I couldn’t accept that feeling [of comfort] in the beginning because I always had a feeling as if I shouldn’t do this or I shouldn’t do that.”
“I was never able to have that feeling of playing soccer and enjoying life, until I got here.”
This season, Nagasato has eight goals to go along with nine assists after the Red Stars semifinal win last Sunday. Her performance throughout the match showed a larger audience why she’s an MVP candidate this year, and she credits her coaching staff for playing her in a new position this year, and her teammates for her personal growth.
“Playing wide on the left side or right side this season, that made me grow more as a player,” says Nagasato. “I hadn’t played in a wide [role]. In the beginning it was not comfortable, but I overcame hurdles, and beat my goals that I set for myself. I was able to play better than last year, more versatile. A new position made me grow more this year.”
Nagasto is one of five MVP finalists, along with her teammate Sam Kerr. However, when the MVP award finalists were initially announced, the accolade didn’t settle in for Nagasato at first.
“I didn’t pay much attention,” she says, and when I asked her about her own choice for MVP this season she enthusiastically responds, “Casey, my trouble.” — her nickname for teammate Casey Short.
Short and Nagsato have found themselves playing on the left flank together throughout various times this season. Short, a Naperville native, is quick to praise her teammates’ work ethic and personality.
“There’s no one like Yuki,” says Short. “She’s a special teammate and someone I’ve definitely grown close to, I learn from her everyday. She’s so wise on the pitch but off the pitch she brings something else. Always that person that can bring a smile to your face.”
Nagasato’s shift in mindset and lifestyle over the last few years is now uniquely Chicago. Whether it’s been behind the drums, or on the pitch, she’s sharing her recent spotlight with her teammates.
“I’m honored to be on the list with world class players, and when I made that list, I couldn’t make it by myself,” says Nagasato. “The team has grown a lot, more than last season, and we clearly understand each other so well. Much better than last year.”
After going to the semifinals the last four years, Chicago has finally broken through the door and earned a championship appearance. While Nagasato had the assist on the Red Stars’ lone and game winning goal, it was in the final minutes of the match where that team cohesion and familiarity came into play. With an opportunity to kill the game clock in the final minutes, her teammates fed Nagasato the ball, forcing the opposition to try and dispossess her. They failed to do so. She was the final Red Stars player to touch the ball at the final whistle.
Nagasato credits her performance to her teammates, complimenting their chemistry on the field and their understanding of one another, but what she won’t say is that they marched to the beat of her drum too. Yuki Nagasato helped get the band back together, and they’ll be performing live in Cary, North Carolina. Hopefully it won’t be a one-time-only show.