Kotaro Higashi knew it could be his last chance to play professional soccer in the United States.
If things didn’t work out, Higashi was prepared to return to his hometown of Kyoto, Japan, get a job outside of soccer and begin the next phase of his life. That was a prospect he wanted to put off for at least another year.
So last January, Higashi, 28, packed a couple of bags and boarded a U.S.-bound flight with hopes of landing a professional contract with an American club.
Higashi did his homework before leaving Japan, researching teams in the United Soccer League. There were a couple of clubs on the West Coast that drew his immediate interest, but he had an older brother who lived in North Carolina so he set his sights on the Charleston Battery and the Charlotte Independence.
“Charleston and Charlotte were close to where my brother lived, so they made the most sense,” Higashi said through a translator after practice Tuesday. “If I couldn’t make those teams, then the West Coast was my next option.”
With the plane ticket, hotels, food and registration fee for the tryout, Higashi spent nearly $2,000 to pursue a pro career. It was a lot of out-of-pocket money, but Higashi figures it was a good investment in himself.
“I wasn’t too worried about coming here and trying to earn a contract,” Higashi said. “If I played well and I got a contract, great. If not, then I could try another team in the United States or maybe go back to Germany or Australia or go back home to Japan and get a job.”
There were more than 100 prospects at the Battery’s tryout in January. Higashi had a rather modest resume when he showed up in Charleston. He had played professionally for teams in Australia and Germany — mostly in the third and fourth divisions — but no one on the Battery’s coaching staff knew anything about the 5-3, 140-pound midfielder before that first training session.
“We get a lot of interest in our trials,” said Charleston Battery head coach Mike Anhaeuser. “We get a ton of guys that show up, so it’s difficult to keep up with everyone and know exactly where they've played. He didn’t play in Japan, which is unusual for a Japanese player. He played for a couple of smaller clubs in Germany and Australia, but we didn’t recognize those clubs.”
It didn’t take long for Higashi to catch Anhaeuser’s eye.
“From the very first training session you could see his quality,” Anhaeuser said. “You could see he had the little bit of extra quality that made him stand out from most of the other guys.”
Higashi was invited back to the Battery’s training camp and for the Carolina Challenge Cup, the club’s preseason tournament that features games against teams from Major League Soccer.
“He did very well at the tryout and continued to play well during the practices leading up to the Challenge Cup,” Anhaeuser said.
By the time the Battery took the field against the Seattle Sounders, the defending MLS champions, Higashi had probably done enough to earn a contract. If there were any doubts, they were erased in the final seconds against the Sounders.
Higashi all but assured himself a spot on the Battery’s roster, scoring in the final seconds to tie the game at 1-1.
“That was a great moment,” Higashi said. “If I hadn’t made the team by then, I felt I had earned my spot with that goal.”
Higashi has been a fixture in the Battery’s lineup ever since, playing in 24 games with 18 starts. He is third on the team with three assists.
“The game is more physical in the United States than it is in Japan or even Germany,” Higashi said. “It’s a lot like the style of play in Australia. I’m not the biggest guy, so I have to use my speed and quickness to create space for myself.”
Communicating with Higashi has been a challenge. Higashi spoke almost no English before arriving in the Lowcountry, and unlike Spanish, which is a common language among most teams in the USL, no one spoke Japanese.
“He understands it a lot better than he speaks it,” Anhaeuser said. “I can get my point across and he definitely understands it. The guys in the locker room love Higashi. He’s one of the most popular guys in the locker room.”
Higashi said his English has improved exponentially since coming to the Lowcountry nine months ago.
“It’s getting better, I understand just about everything everyone says,” Higashi said. “We use simple phrases on the field and I try to keep my answers short so everyone understands me.”
Higashi said he’s enjoyed living in Charleston. He said his diet has been the biggest adjustment.
“It’s a beautiful city, clean and safe,” Higashi said. “I try not to eat a lot of the American food like hamburgers, but I do. The food here is good.”