Whitecaps Goal! At home with Kanata and Canada - The Province

Now joined by family, Japanese veteran mulls permanent future here

BY MARC WEBER

It's pure coincidence that Takashi Hirano named his Canadian-born son Kanata, but the Whitecaps' Japanese defender is beginning to feel a sense of belonging in his second home.

CLICK HERE to see photos of Taka and his family.

So much so that he's already thought seriously about staying in Vancouver after his professional career ends.

"If I can find a job, maybe I can remain," he said through an interpreter at training this week. "Do you have a job for me?"

His job, for now, is safe. Even at age 35 — the oldest Whitecap — he is part of the upper echelon of United Soccer Leagues talent.

"He's one of the best left backs, if not the best left back in the league in terms of service and composure and overlapping runs," said fellow defender Geordie Lyall.

Hirano's also part of a growing trend with the Whitecaps: the international player. More specifically, the non-American international player.

During the Bob Lilley era from 2005-07, Vancouver's roster featured six, nine and nine Americans, up from one in 2004. The league rules had changed after 2004 and Americans no longer counted as internationals for Canadian clubs.

Under Teitur Thordarson, there's been a shift to mine talent from more far-reaching nations like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Bolivia and Japan, and that's only going to continue with a move to Major League Soccer on the horizon.

Of the current crop of foreigners, Hirano, Brazilian goalkeeper Diego and Haitian midfielder Kenold Versailles struggle the most with English. But Diego can speak Portuguese with Charles Gbeke and his Brazilian wife, and Versailles can converse with Thordarson and others in French.

Hirano's English allows him only to have a rudimentary chat — and to laugh at the movie Bruno — so it's no surprise he's more comfortable this season with his family around full time.

"Now that my life here is more stable, I find it easier," said Hirano, who, on the field, has developed a system of copying common soccer jargon to communicate with teammates.

"I've got my kids here and I don't have to go out to eat. There's a Japanese restaurant, Ebisu, near my apartment, so that was my kitchen before.

"I would eat there five times a week," he laughed, adding that it's reasonably priced.

Takashi and wife Akane had Kanata, their second child, shortly after Akane arrived in Vancouver midway through last season. Kanata is a good name, a lucky name, because of the number of strokes in the Japanese characters and its match with his surname.

"Later people pointed out that it sounds like 'Canada' and I said, 'Oh, yeah, I guess so,'" said Hirano. "I didn't think about that when I picked it."

Off-days are spent hanging out as a family at Kits Beach or Stanley Park or Granville Island. In June, they went to a Seattle Mariners game and saw Ichiro go 4-for-5 with a double and a home run against the San Diego Padres.

And partly due to the natural difficulties of turning to teammates for support, the couple has made plenty of Japanese-Canadian friends.

Hirano even had the Whitecaps office make him Japanese-English business cards so he'd have something to hand out to potential fans and partners. Recently, he was asked to speak at a Japanese community sports day, and last month he received an invitation from the Consulate General of Japan to meet Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on their visit to Vancouver.

The Whitecaps were on a road trip and Hirano couldn't attend, but he keeps in regular contact with the consulate.

"It's great to have support from the Japanese community here," said Hirano, who also has the Taka Fan Club at Whitecaps games. "I've made a lot of friends, which is good because I'm away much of the time and I'm concerned for my family. It gives me peace of mind."

The thing he misses most about Japan, he said, is his massage therapist, a guy who's been taking care of him since he was 18. Hirano credits him with keeping him injury-free over the years — this season he's second to only Martin Nash for minutes played by an out-field player.

Hirano's found a shiatsu therapist in Vancouver, but at 35, with back-to-back games looming, the solution to injury prevention is sometimes far more simple.

"He came up to me after training last week," said Thordarson, "he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Coach. Taka tired.'"

INTERNATIONALS ON RISE

Number of non-Canadians on the Whitecaps roster.

Year: U.S., other
2009: 5, 10*
2008: 4, 6*
2007: 9, 4
2006: 9, 3
2005: 6, 0
2004: 1, 1

*includes players signed to PDL contracts

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