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Breaking the mold: Wan Kuzain, and U.S. soccer’s search for more players like him

Sporting KC's latest teenage sensation is nothing like the stereotypical American player. Are there more players out there like him? And, if so, are they being overlooked?

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It’s uncommon to see a professional club in North America highlight pass completion percentages in a press release announcing a signing.

But that’s exactly what Sporting Kansas City did upon inking Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal as an MLS Homegrown Player in April, extolling the teenage midfield talent’s USL-best 91.3-percent passing accuracy in 2017 and his 90.8-percent completion rate in his first few games of 2018 as they promoted him from Swope Park Rangers, their reserve side.

The tack is partly because the 19-year-old U.S. youth international plays holding midfield in Sporting’s system, a role not generally conducive to gaudy attacking statistics. It also hints at his rare gifts, and the challenges to cultivating others like him.

“A very good passer of the ball, very good technique, very good vision, good awareness,” Swope Park head coach Paulo Nagamura, himself a holding midfielder in his playing days, told FourFourTwo. “For me, what defines Wan Kuzain, he is a little diamond that needs to be polished.”

Kuzain does not fit the traditional mold of a blue-chip United States men’s national team youth prospect. He stands a modest 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, and isn’t remarkably strong, fast or physical. Born in Carbondale, Illinois, to Malaysian parents, Kuzain has since 12 years old been drawing attention from onlookers in both countries with YouTube videos of him bewitching opponents. He’s different; now, he aims to prove that those skills can translate in Major League Soccer.

“I think sometimes we have the wrong impression about physicality,” said Nagamura. “Kuzain is a very good example of a guy who is not very physical and strong, but is really quick on the ball, with quick feet. His technique and his quick feet overcome a lot of the stronger guys he plays against. For sure there’s a lot of players like that in the United States and we can never close the doors for those players, because I think we want to have guys who are good on the ball, guys who can make plays and guys that are technically efficient.”

After learning the game under the guidance of his father – a former pro in Malaysia – at local club South Illinois FC, Kuzain joined St. Louis Scott Gallagher’s academy system at age 11, making the four-hour round trip from Carbondale for trainings and games four to five times a week. Today, the club would be able to fast-track a player of his abilities up to the USL level, where it owns and operates Saint Louis FC. But back then that arrangement was in its infancy, so Kuzain and his family looked west, where his brother Wan Kuzac was working as an administrator at Sporting KC.

Having built a reputation as one of the most aggressive recruiters of youth talent in the nation, Sporting wasted no time. Kuzain joined SKC’s academy in August 2016 and signed a USL contract with Swope Park Rangers less than a year later. The club shifted him from an advanced midfield role to the No. 6 spot along the way. He was promoted to the senior MLS team in April, making him the first player in club history to progress from academy to full first team.

“I saw what they had here, the training facilities, the natural progression they have with their players, and thought it would be a really good move,” Kuzain, who was also scouted by – and trained with – Dutch powerhouse Feyenoord before deciding on SKC, told FourFourTwo.

“In Europe you can see that every club is trying to look for the next big-time player and they have scouts all over the world. And I think that it’s happening now in MLS – smaller pool, obviously, but I think it creates competition and obviously competition equals a higher level.”

Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal

(Photo: Sporting KC)

Even hinting at a similarity with the likes of tiki-taka masters Andres Iniesta or Sergio Busquets risks doing any youth prospect a disservice. Yet if there’s a young American player remotely comparable to the products of the Catalan club, it’s Kuzain, with his natural comfort on the ball, rapid speed of thought and execution, expansive vision and sky-high soccer IQ.

“It’s just a matter of what you’re looking for,” said Blake Decker, the academy director for Saint Louis FC who worked with Kuzain in the Illinois branch of the academy. “I wouldn’t say that Kuz is not athletic – he is athletic, but in maybe different areas than what’s traditionally seen or valued in American sports. Tremendously coordinated, really quick, really well-balanced, really agile, which also are athletic qualities.

“Maybe he doesn’t have a big profile or is not powerful in the traditional sense where he’s going to cover acres and acres of ground. But being able to play in and out of tight spaces, balanced, able to shift and go both ways, being coordinated with and without the ball, I think he rates in all those qualities.”

Could Kuzain’s rise signal the long-sought evolution away from American soccer’s longstanding obsession with size, speed, strength and athleticism? Are there more like him out there just waiting to be identified and cultivated?

“I don’t consider myself different,” Kuzain says. “Obviously the typical American player that we see is someone who’s fast, big and athletic. Overall, in my time in the Development Academy I’ve seen players who have similar abilities or play the same way who are small, technical and not necessarily the most athletic. But I think there’s a lot of those type of players that are coming through in the academies, and we’re going to see much more of them for years to come.”

Under MLS regulations, Sporting claim large swaths of the Midwest as their “Homegrown territory,” a concession made in recognition of its small-market status compared to the likes of the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy. That territory includes St. Louis, a historical hotbed of the game that might already have its own MLS team were it not for difficulties in obtaining a stadium plan for its expansion hopes.

It’s fair to say that rankles some in St. Louis, especially given the lack of a training compensation or solidarity payments system to recognize and reward youth clubs that nurture top talent. In the meantime, the onus falls on individual players and families to find a path towards the top.

“At the end of the day, the majority of his development came down to him,” said Decker. “We provided an environment, we’re very happy and proud of the time we were able to spend with him and where he’s gone. If you’ve known a kid since 11 years old, of course would you like him playing for your club? Yes. Would training compensation be nice? Sure. But the most important thing is that you’ve played a part in helping somebody to take another step towards achieving their dreams. That’s probably the most important thing for us.

“We try to be a good neighbor in our own community; it’s recognizing through our affiliate clubs when a player transitions to our academy – that information is included when we talk about that player and we recognize that accomplishment, because we truly do feel that it’s a group effort. No club anywhere in this country is going to be able to identify every single player at 7 years old or 10 years old that is going to play professionally. It’s a collective effort.”

Kuzain credits both clubs for developing him. It’s far too early to decipher the height of his ceiling, and even more difficult considering how different and nuanced his position is. But in Sporting KC, Kuzain has a club with a proven track record of advancing talented young players – as well as teammate Ilie Sanchez, of Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy, to learn the holding midfield role from.

“MLS is a much higher competition and much higher level than USL, so he has to catch up to that,” Nagamura said. “I do believe he has the qualities to do it. He’s just a young kid and he has [a] lot of tools.”

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