Legend: The Story of Legion FC Midfielder Daigo Kobayashi
BIRMINGHAM, AL - From his apartment on the outskirts of Birmingham, Daigo Kobayashi is working on cutting together highlights from his storied career to share on his Instagram page. His followers like the clips, he says, and having played in over 500 professional matches, totaling over 32,000 competitive minutes on the pitch, he has plenty of footage from which to choose.
Whenever soccer does resume in the USL Championship, and Kobayashi steps on to BBVA Field once again, it will mark the start of his 20th professional season. At age 37, conventional wisdom would tell you he has a limited number of years left to add to the archives. However, despite never dreaming his story would still be ongoing, chapter after chapter, he feels as though he has nothing but time.
Kobayashi honed his skills growing up at Shimizu Commercial High School, a factory for professional soccer players. At least a dozen players from Shimizu HS went on to make appearances for the Japanese National Team, including Kobayashi. From an early age, the focus in Japan is on technical ability, and that ability shines through in the style of play in Japan.
"We train constantly doing technical drills and basic drills," Kobayashi explained. "We work hard training on touch, and the basics. That's the most important. We have so many technical players there in Japan, so the game is a little bit slower than in America, in MLS. It's closer to Liga MX, the Mexican professional league. It's more technical and play is simpler."
He made his professional debut at age 18, on August 11, 2001, in a substitute appearance for Tokyo Verdy in the J-League. He spent eight seasons playing in Japan to start his career, with Tokyo and Omiya Ardija and won a domestic cup in 2004 and the league cup in 2005. While in Japan, he played with Brazilian National Team players Edmundo and Washington and Cameroonian legend, Patrick Mboma, and in 2005 played against Real Madrid, a side that included, among others, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Raul, Roberto Carlos and had Iker Casillas in goal. But, none of the "Galacticos' names graced the scoresheet that day.
"So actually, I scored the first goal in that game," laughed Kobayashi when recalling Tokyo's 3-0 win. "It was just a friendly match, but I was the first person to score against Real Madrid in Asia, first Asian player, I think. They had a tour around Asia that offseason and played in China two days before playing against us, so their condition was so bad.
"But playing against Zidane was a dream. After he retired my role model was Andres Iniesta, but when I was young, I always tried to reach Zidane, play like Zidane. He was the dream. So, playing against him was an incredible experience for me."
In 2009, Kobayashi made the move to Europe to play for Staebek in the Norwegian first division. At the time, U.S. Men's National Team player Mix Diskerud was also a member of the squad. While in Oslo, Kobayashi got the chance to play in Champions League qualifying matches, and faced off against David Villa, Juan Mata, and David Silva's Valencia team in Europa League play.
"Playing in Champions League was a good experience, for me," said Kobayashi. "But I remember that game [against Valencia] was tough. I think I touched the ball five or six times! Other than that, I just tried to win the ball, I think we played just defense for 85 minutes. That team was very good."
"I think Daigo was the first Japanese player we ever had in Norway," said Diskerud. "Every soccer fan in the country was curious on his skills. And man, did he create some magnificent moves, dribbles, passing and shots. He had an X-factor about him. A joy to watch, in training and games...he really was a true gentleman."
Following the season, Kobayashi signed on a free transfer with Greek club Iraklis Thessaloniki but had to return to Japan after making just 15 appearances due to injury. Once he returned home, he had a discectomy, back surgery to repair a herniated disc, and was told before going under the knife that there was a ten percent chance he would never play, or even walk again.
After eight months of plenty of walking and recovery, Kobayashi returned to play with Shimizu S-Pulse before making the move to Vancouver in 2013 to play in Major League Soccer. Despite the injury setback, it was imperative to Kobayashi that he keep growing in his career.
"I wanted to keep trying to play in other countries, and my agent was looking for other clubs in Europe, but I was already getting old," joked Kobayashi. "I was turning 30. Some of my friends played in America already, so I knew about American soccer through speaking with them, and because of David Beckham...but I believed the first division in the country would be a good level, so I moved to Vancouver.
"After surgery I didn't play well in the J-League - those two seasons [2011 and 2012] weren't good. But I believed in myself, that I can play better again, and still wanted to try and play in other countries, that's always been a good experience for me, so that's why I moved to MLS."
In 2013, the head coach for the Whitecaps was current USL Championship side Indy Eleven's Martin Rennie, who knew he had a talented player who was ready to contribute as soon as Kobayashi stepped onto the pitch.
"He was certainly a very talented player, very skillful, very good on the ball, good vision - a lot of Japanese players have great technique, and he certainly fit that mold," said Rennie. "It's amazing to think that he's still playing because he seemed like he was more of a veteran even at the point that we signed him, so the fact that all these years later he's still playing shows how professional he is, and how great an achievement that is to keep healthy and strong all that time."
After a season getting acclimated to soccer in North America, current Legion FC President and General Manager Jay Heaps and Head Coach Tommy Soehn, who were both coaching for the New England Revolution at the time, brought Kobayashi into the fold in Boston in 2014. Over the course of the next four seasons the Japanese playmaker made over 100 appearances for the club and was a major part of the team's winning culture along with key players like Lee Nguyen.
"Anything for Daigo," said Nguyen, when asked to recall their time together with the Revs. "He was one of my favorite players to play with...He's definitely one of the most technical guys I've played with - both his right and left foot are identical, and his vision and soccer IQ made it really a joy to connect and combine with him on the field. What stuck out to me was with all that skill he was also very selfless and didn't care who scored or who had the assist, but he just wanted to play good soccer and win. When you have more of that type of player on the field, you're more likely to succeed. He's a top pro and no surprise why he's been able to have the career he's had."
"Daigo is the definition of a true professional," said Kobayashi's "best buddy' and roommate in Boston, Brad Knighton. "How he conducted himself on and off the field was in a class by itself. His longevity as a professional has shown that. He was a man of few words but carried the respect of the whole locker room when he spoke. He helped the younger players and took them aside on occasion to just speak to them about life and soccer and everything. He would go out of his way to help anyone in the club no matter the ask. Out of all my years playing our relationship that we had will never be topped."
By 2018, his time in New England had run out, and Kobayashi was signed by the Las Vegas Lights, his first of two USL Championship expansion sides, before coming to Birmingham in 2019. His professionalism, to go along with an evergreen first touch, made his services as a player joining a new club highly sought after, and he was a guy Heaps and Soehn were keen on bringing to the Magic City.
"We knew how well he takes care of his body, how in tune he is with that, and we'd also seen his professionalism," said Heaps. "I think at the core of every soccer player is the technical ability. How do you get better and how do you approach getting better at that? All professionals are looking for a little bit of an edge and Daigo has that, so he can also still give guidance and set a good example by how and when he receives that ball. That's easier shown than explained sometimes, and Daigo is the perfect example of that. It's not about what he says or even what he does, but exactly how he does it, which is why we wanted him here."
Despite surpassing the 500 competitive matches played mark in his first season with Birmingham, Kobayashi says he has no plan for retirement or desire to be done playing. Actually, he had not even thought about it.
"I'm not thinking about what I'll do after I finish my career," said Kobayashi. "I don't know. Maybe coach? I just think about this year. One year at a time.
"Soccer is my life, you know? It's so hard to explain, in English! For me, soccer is one of the most important parts of my life. I put the sport, my job, at the same level with family and friends in my thoughts, and as professionals we're not only playing soccer for myself and my family. We contribute to society through playing soccer, like here in Birmingham, and I want to do something to give back to local people and fans that have supported me."
Regardless of when "the Legend," as he's come to be called within the Legion FC squad, decides to hang up his boots, he'll have nearly as many life-long relationships to look back on as highlights to sort through for his Instagram feed. But according to him, that may be a while...
"If someone needs me, I'll play," said Kobayashi when asked if he could play until he is 50 years old. "If Jay asks me to play, I'd say yes."
Images from this story
Birmingham Legion FC midfielder Daigo Kobayashi
Birmingham Legion FC midfielder Daigo Kobayashi in the huddle
Birmingham Legion FC midfielder Daigo Kobayashi (left)
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