SEATTLE — Sota Kitahara is Seattle Sounders FC through and through.
The 19-year-old Edmonds-Woodway High School graduate has been a part of the organization since he was 12, when he was first identified by the Sounders and began participating twice weekly in the team’s Discovery Program. He impressed enough that he was invited to join the Sounders Academy as a full-time participant, representing the team at the U-15, U-17 and U-19 levels. The past two years he’s suited up for Seattle’s reserve team, the Tacoma Defiance.
There’s just one level left for Kitahara to pull on the rave-green jersey and take the field for the Sounders, and that opportunity is now within his grasp.
Kithara is the newest member of the Sounders’ first team after signing a contract with the team on Oct. 28. Now his next step is showing the coaching staff he belongs on the pitch at Lumen Field.
“It feels great,” Kitahara said about signing a first-team contract with the team he’s grown up adoring. “I’ve been dreaming of playing for this team. I think it’s a big step up for me, but I’m really excited about it.
“It’s been great going through the steps of the Academy, Tacoma and now the first team because you’re always looking up to the team higher than you. It’s really nice to be at the top, now I have to show what I can do to stay at the top.”
Kitahara, a central midfielder and right back who measures in at 5-foot-9 and 146 pounds, is coming off a standout season for the Defiance. Despite missing time because of knee injuries, he appeared in 15 of Tacoma’s 23 games last season, starting 13 of them. He registered one goal and two assists, and it was his sprint into the penalty box from deep midfield that forced the last-minute own goal that tied the game against Houston in the MLS NEXT Pro quarterfinals, a game the Defiance won in penalty kicks.
ABSOLUTE SCENES AT STARFIRE! pic.twitter.com/kRMie1UQT5
— Tacoma Defiance (@TACdefiance) September 26, 2022
His performances were enough to convince the Sounders to add him to the first team and make him the 20th homegrown signing in franchise history.
“Sota has done a good job the last couple years with his development personally, but also within our system,” Sounders sporting director Craig Waibel said. “He’s open-minded, but at the same time he gets down to work every day. That’s an intangible we look for that not a lot of guys have, having the personal drive to self evaluate and grow within our structure, and he also has the maturity to look at his own performances and evaluate himself. When you spot not just the ability, but also the maturity away from the field, that’s something we try to hone in our organization.”
Indeed, Kitahara has done everything the organization has asked. That included fully embracing the opportunity to spend several months of 2021 abroad. Midway through the 2021 season Kitahara was approached with the opportunity to go on loan to Austrian third-division club FC Pinzgau Saalfelden. Kitahara jumped at the opportunity without hesitation, despite the fact it was his first time leaving home.
“It was much different,” Kitahara said about playing in Austria. “It was a really small town, and because it was third-division soccer half the guys would be working during the day and training in the afternoon. For me it was my first time living alone and not being babied by my parents. That helped me a lot in being more independent.”
It also proved to be an important juncture in his development path. To that point Kitahara was exclusively a cultured box-to-box central midfielder. However, Pinzgau coach and former German national team standout Christian Ziege decided to give Kitahara time at right back. Seeing the field from a different perspective helped improve Kitahara’s midfield play, and Waibel said Kitahara’s ability to play multiple positions played a role in the Sounders’ decision to sign him for the first team.
Being signed to the first team doesn’t guarantee Kitahara will be gracing Lumen Field right away. He’s still expected to play games for Tacoma in 2023 as his development continues.
“Further development is what we’re looking for,” is Waibel’s goal for Kitahara in 2023. “I think his progress will be measured in many different ways. From an organizational standpoint Sota needs to be part of first-team training on a daily basis and hold up to the standard. He’ll play a lot of games with the Defiance this year because minutes is the most important thing to show he deserves to be part of our first-team group. An appearance with the first team would be the ultimate reward.”
And Kitahara, who’s steadily climbed every rung within the organization, understands that.
“My personal goal is to get as many minutes with the first team as I can,” Kitahara said. “I think breaking into the first team would be nice my first year. That all comes from playing well in training and in preseason. Right now I’m focused on the things I can do right now that will help me get more minutes there.”