Sinsheim - As one of the youngest of a legion of Japanese players currently plying their trade in the Bundesliga, 1899 Hoffenheim midfielder Takashi Usami finally appears to be coming of age after a difficult process of adaptation.
Following a loan spell at FC Bayern Munich last season, the 20-year-old is now maturing as a Bundesliga player with every passing week. Hoffenheim still have work to do if they are to avoid relegation this term, but for new coach Marco Kurz, having the Japanese starlet in his squad will make the task that little bit easier.
“Takashi, move the ball on quicker,” cried Kurz during training earlier this week, an instruction greeted by nod of understanding. The youngster's change of pace is one of his key weapons and something the coach has looked to make use of since taking charge of the team in January. “Takashi's a great dribbler,” said the 43-year-old coach. "He’s dangerous when he cuts inside and shoots with his stronger right foot."
SC Freiburg and VfB Stuttgart can certainly testify to that after Usami lit up both fixtures with stunning solo goals having left a host of defenders trailing in his wake. As creative influences go, Usami is unique in the Hoffenheim squad, a fact recognised by Kurz, who has handed him a starting berth in every Bundesliga game so far this year.
Usami's move to FC Bayern in summer 2011 predictably attracted widespread media attention. However, aged just 19 at the time and part of one Europe’s most competitive squads, he struggled to assert himself in Bavaria and made just two league appearances. He left the Reds with a sense of unfinished business in Germany last summer and courageously opted to stay in the Bundesliga by way of a one-year loan deal at Hoffenheim.
It was a decision that has benefitted both player and club immensely. Usami is receiving regular playing time in Europe’s most competitive league and, although he is yet to make an appearance for the senior Japan side, his astonishing rate of progression means he will surely be in contention for a place the squad for their upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. And in what has been a testing season for Hoffenheim, Usami’s development has surely been one of the major plus points.
The softly-spoken midifelder's on-field progress is also partly down to his settled routine off it. Usami currently resides in Heidelberg but often drives north to meet up with compatriot at Eintracht Frankfurt. Furthermore, he has developed a close friendship with team-mate Jannik Vestergaard. The duo frequently converse together in German, which is another area Usami is improving in courtesy of his weekly language lessons.
Hoffenheim fans will get their next opportunity to witness the midfielder's talents on Sunday evening against Swabian rivals Stuttgart (kick-off 17:30 CET). “They're having a rough period right now," Usami said, "but if we play with the desire we showed last time, there’s a good chance we can win the game".
Tobias Schächter and Bernie Reeves