Like many soccer-loving kids the Greater Seattle area, Sota Kitahara grew up hoping to one day play for Sounders FC.
When Kitahara was just 12 years old, he caught the attention of Sounders scouts with his stellar performances for local club Seattle United. He was invited to train in the Sounders Discovery Program, and within a year he was playing up an age group with the Academy on a full-time basis.
Fast forward seven years and Kitahara has inked a contract with his hometown club, becoming to the 20th Homegrown Player in Sounders FC history.
“It feels like a dream,” Kitahara told SoundersFC.com. “It’s a pleasure to play for a club you’ve been supporting since you were a little kid and playing for the Academy. I’m really excited.”
According to Sounders FC VP of Player Development Henry Brauner, Kitahara joining the First Team is the culmination of years of hard work.
“[Tacoma Defiance Head Coach] Wade Webber always says you become a pro when you decide to start acting like a pro,” said Brauner. “Sota has been doing that since he was 12 years old in Sounders Discovery Program. You just knew with his determination, humility and growth mindset.”
Throughout his seven years with the club, Kitahara has a track record of adapting to new environments and thriving with each opportunity. In addition to routinely playing up an age group in the Academy, he adapted quickly to the professional environment when he signed with the Defiance at 17 years old.
Perhaps the greatest example of Kitahara’s adaptability occurred when he went on loan to Austrian club FC Pinzgau Saalfelden. H was taken out of his comfort zone when he had to leave his support network in Seattle behind to go live and play professional soccer in a tiny town of 16,000 people nestled in the mountains near the German border.
“It was my first time living in alone and in a different country,” said Kitahara. “Getting away from home and experiencing different things really helped. On the soccer side, playing in Europe for four months really helped me see a different culture of soccer. The coach played in a World Cup for Germany, so it was really great learning from him.”
A box-to-box, all-around midfielder, Kitahara’s steady rise through the ranks at the club is the product of the dedication he brings to his craft every single day. Still just 19 years old, Kitahara has already played over 60 matches, totaling nearly 5,000 minutes, across three professional leagues.
Kitahara might not rack up goals and assists, but his influence on the pitch is undeniable.
“We sometimes notice him most when he’s not on the field,” noted Brauner. “When teams are playing through our midfield, or we’re struggling in our buildup, we try to figure out why. And then we realize it’s because Sota’s not in there. It’s become so normal that he performs at such a high level that we forget how young he is and where he’s at in the stages of his development.”
There is perhaps no better example of Kitahara’s insatiable work rate and will to win than the Defiance’s Western Conference Semifinal win over Houston Dynamo 2 back in September.
Down 2-1 in second half stoppage time, Kitahara made a 60-yard run into the box to get across the face of the opposing center back as Cody Baker whipped in a cross from the right side. The pressure applied by Kitahara forced the defender into a last-ditch clearance attempt that ricocheted into his own net, forcing the match into extra time.
“Without Sota doing that, he probably clears it cleanly and we lose 2-1, and it’s not a historic night for that group,” said Brauner. “He didn’t get the last touch. He didn’t score the goal. But he did everything up until the point that put that player in the position to face uncertainty, and he does that consistently over and over.”
Making the jump from the Defiance to the First Team will be no easy task. But as he’s shown throughout his tenure with the club, Kitahara is ready to embrace the challenge.