Kentaro Matsuura moved 6,100 miles from his home in Japan with only one purpose in mind.
“I did not think about the language,” he said. “I just wanted to play soccer.”
Matsuura, 20, grew up in Fukuoka, the capital of Fukuoka Prefecture and Japan’s fifth-largest city. Ignoring scorching summer temperatures, the future goalkeeper started kicking a ball when he was five.
“I used to play soccer and softball at the same time,” he said. “After three years, I became more interested in soccer. It was more fun.”
Matsuura started out as a striker, but life had other plans. He was riding a bicycle when a car hit him, leaving him severely injured.
“I was 13 when that happened,” he said. “I had bone bruises in both of my knees and two toes on my right foot were broken.”
Matsuura returned to practice after four months of convalescing. During that time, his soccer club had two teams but only one goalkeeper, he said, so his coach asked him to fill the role for the local tournament.
“It was my first experience as a goalkeeper,” he said. “My coach asked me because he knew I could not move a lot.”
After winning the tournament, Matsuura decided to focus on guarding the goal line.
With no goalkeeper coach to teach him the basics, Matsuura said he learned by watching YouTube videos of Oliver Rolf Kahn, known as the Titan, a legendary German goalkeeper famous for his leadership on the field and his explosive personality.
“He was a great goalkeeper,” Matsuura said. “Oliver Kahn had amazing technique and he was a good influence for his teammates.”
Matsuura was offered an athletic scholarship to Ohori High School after competing in Japan’s Club Youth Football Championship. He played with the first team and was the starting goalkeeper his last two years.
“It was weird when we had a day off,” he said. “We started morning practice at 7:30 a.m. and afternoon practice from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. During the weekends it was usually matches or practices again.”
Men’s soccer coach Cem Tont went to Japan in 2016 as a representative of the Premier Development League to run clinics alongside coaches from Cal State Pomona and San Diego State. Tont said Matsuura approached him during one of the clinics.
“Kentaro showed interest in coming to the United States,” he said. “I explained to him the process he needed to follow if he wanted to be a student in America.”
Matsuura moved to the U.S. last summer with a desire to make a career in soccer. After a 5,552-miles 12-hour flight from Tokyo, he arrived in San Diego. His first day, he said, is something he will never forget.
“I was really worried about the future,” he said. “I could not speak a word of English.”
He could not join the Jaguars right away. To be admitted as an international student at SWC he needed a score of 50 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to enroll in college. Matsuura failed, so for six months he went to a language school called Connect English.
“It was an interesting experience,” he said. “Everyone was an international student, so talking with them in English was so much easier. They were learning, too.”
On his second attempt Matsuura passed and enrolled for the spring 2017 semester as a psychology major.
Matsuura is shorter than most goalkeepers, but he compensates with quick hands and outstanding footwork. Tont said Matsuura is good enough to play in the field and his distribution skills have almost professional-level accuracy.
“He has very quick reflexes,” Tont said. “Maybe he is not that tall, but he has good leaping ability and one of the strengths he has, that very few goalkeepers in the United States have, is that he is incredible with his feet. He can hit the ball 50, 60 yards and start an attack.”
SWC teammate Josue Lopez said Matsuura is a well-rounded keeper and a hard-working teammate.
“Sometimes we joke around in practice, but he is always on his toes and paying attention,” Lopez said. “He has a lot of commitment, especially because he is a foreign student who is looking for better opportunities.”
Language barriers can sometimes be a problem in school, Matsuura said, but when it comes to soccer, he has no problem communicating with teammates despite their use of Spanish during matches. Lopez agreed.
“In the field we give signals, maybe words here and there,” he said. “Soccer speaks by itself. This sport has its own language.”
Unlike players from other countries with stronger soccer traditions like Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, most of the Japanese players become professional after graduating from college. Matsuura said he wants to get an athletic scholarship and transfer to a four-year university. His current GPA is 3.68.
“I want to be a professional soccer player,” he said. “I think I have been improving my skills, but still I need to keep working. I feel the biggest difference between American soccer and Japanese soccer is that Japanese players are mentally tough and hungrier to succeed.”
Being away from home has been an eye-opening experience, Matsuura said, especially cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.
“At first it was difficult to adapt,” he said. “People here are more open-minded, but now I am more getting used to it.”
Tont said Matsuura is very confident and disciplined, so nothing will stop him from pursuing his goals.
“You can trust in him 100 percent,” said Tont. “He does not take ‘no’ for an answer and he will outwork anybody else.”
Matsuura finished fifth in the Pacific Coast Athletic Conferences with 50 saves and four shutouts. Thou shall not pass has new meaning on the pitch. Almost nothing gets by Matsuura.