Yamada goes from unknown to Rowdies stalwart

Takuya Yamada started the first game in Rowdies history, and he remains a key and respected figure.
Takuya Yamada will appear in his 100th game tonight.
Takuya Yamada will appear in his 100th game tonight.
Published August 24 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Four years ago, Takuya Yamada traveled from his native Japan to Tampa at his own expense. The unknown midfielder and defender participated in an open tryout with about 60 players for a handful of spots with a new soccer team, FC Tampa Bay.

He spoke no English. And he was, on average, 10 years older than the others at the tryout.

Today, Yamada is the model player for a franchise now called the Rowdies.

"He's a player that definitely stood out at the trial," Rowdies executive vice president Perry Van Der Beck said. "He was very consistent. His technique was there. His English wasn't as good as it is now. But watching him, you think, 'He can definitely play at this level.' "

Tonight against Edmonton, Yamada makes his 100th appearance for Tampa Bay — and celebrates his 39th birthday. He is the first player from the Rowdies' modern era to reach 100 games and the only player to appear in all four of the franchise's seasons.

"100 matches? I didn't know I made it that far," said Yamada, who will be honored before the game. "It was a surprise."

Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said Yamada is the epitome of professionalism. He rides his bike each day to practice; from his apartment to the Shimberg Complex training facility in Tampa, about 21/2 miles away. He practices with the urgency of a 20-year old rookie just hoping to make the team.

And while the rest of the squad returns to the locker room after an intense, two-hour session, Yamada lies on the field under the noon sun for 15 minutes of core strengthening.

"His appetite for work his insatiable," Hill said. "He comes in whether we've had a hard session the day before, and he's always at maximum. For someone of his age with his experience and where he's been in his career, the humility that he shows every day is a shining example for everyone, myself included."

Yamada played 13 seasons in Japan's top division, but his interest in foreign cultures led him to search for a place abroad to finish his career. He completed trial stints in Thailand and Australia before signing with Tampa Bay.

"I was planning to go to Australia, but I decided Tampa is a nice place. It's good for me," said Yamada, a starter for the franchise's first game April 16, 2010, at Baltimore. "If the weather is cold, it's not good for my body. Sometimes, it's too hot here, but I get used to it."

At 38, Yamada had his best season with the Rowdies in 2012. He slipped into a central defender role and anchored a previously shaky unit, starting 32 of 34 games and leading the Rowdies to the NASL championship (although a strained knee ligament kept him out of the final series against Minnesota). He was named to the league's Best XI All-Star team.

"In terms of his physical attributes, he's still well up there in terms of the fitness graph," Hill said. "So while that is still the case and he's still happy to play and still has the enthusiasm to play and the desire, then I'm quite happy for him to be part of this group."

Yamada doesn't know how many seasons he has left in him. But he's certain of two things: He wants to finish his career in a Rowdies jersey, and he wants to coach in the United States after he retires. He received his visa in July.

"I play one game and see if I can move," he said.

"If I can, then I play the next one."