Playoff Spotlight Cover Sota Kitahara

In a season that has seen Tacoma Defiance challenge near the top of the Western Conference table and clinch a spot in the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs, Defiance midfielder Sota Kitahara has been a primary driving force.

The 19-year-old Edmonds, Wa. native and Sounders Academy product may not necessarily have the flashiest game or the gaudy goal-scoring numbers, but any soccer coach will tell you the value of a do-everything midfielder that holds it all together on both sides of the ball.

That’s exactly how Kitahara has been described in his young career, which got its start when he joined the Sounders Academy in 2016 before he eventually signed with Tacoma.

“He's a quiet pro,” Sounders Vice President of Player Development Henry Brauner told SoundersFC.com “He goes about his business. He leads by example. He is an embodiment of the developmental system. He's humble, he's hard-working, there's not an ounce of ostentatious nature in him, he is just a worker. He accepts any role that is asked of him to play. He's played as a center-mid, 6 and 8, he's played as a right back for Wade (Webber) at times, he's played as a left back even last year a couple times. So his versatility is also a strength of his.

“We like to say when our best players are also our best people, then we have something unique. And we have that in Sota, is the best way to put it.”

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Kitahara has always been thought of highly within the organization, but he’s taken his game to a new level in 2022, perhaps aided by a loan stint with Austrian side FC Pinzgau Saalfelden that he embarked on last year alongside Defiance teammate Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez.

FC Pinzgau is known as a destination for young players where they can fully immerse themselves in the game, with few outside distractions in the relatively small city of Saalfelden. The time outside of his comfort zone, where he had to adapt to a multitude of new things on the fly, proved beneficial for Kitahara, Brauner said.

“When they go on these loans, it matures them, it accelerates their professional maturity,” said Brauner. “So now, all of the sudden you're in a different environment, you have to adapt. You're in a different culture, you have to adapt. Don't probably speak the language right away, you have to adapt. The rhythm and the style of play, you have to adapt. Your teammates aren't the same faces you've been seeing since you were a 13-year-old in the club, he has to adapt.

“So all these moments that he's had to figure out while on that loan in Austria, it's him being able to be a little bit more comfortable and be a little bit more stable in an adapting world, which is the game.”

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Now back in the Seattle organization, Kitahara’s development has been apparent in 2022, where he’s been a key cog for a Defiance side that is looking to make some noise in their first trip to the MLS NEXT Pro playoffs.

“He can have an impact that goes well beyond the stat sheet,” said Brauner. “He's one of those guys where some would say you notice him more when he's not there, because (when he’s not on the field) all of the sudden: Why did they get in space in the midfield? Why is the opposition gaining more possession? Why aren't we on our transition defending?

“Sota, again, he's that quiet pro, he goes about his business and is industrious and understands what the game needs in what moments. He provides that framework and stability for the players around him and he helps magnify everybody else's strengths.”