While most of the headlines made by the LA Galaxy have revolved around retiring star Landon Donovan and Most Valuable Player Award nominee Robbie Keane, Swedish international Stefan Ishizaki has largely flown under the radar.
The 32-year-old joined the club back in January from Allsvenkan side Elfsborg with whom he had spent the previous eight seasons, and has shone with five goals and seven assists from 30 regular season games in his debut Major League Soccer campaign.
A tricky right winger, Ishizaki’s ability to trouble defenders and deliver dangerous balls into the box has been a welcome addition to an attack already boasting Donovan, Keane and Gyasi Zardes.
Against the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of their Western Conference title decider last weekend, Ishizaki came agonisingly close to finding the net as his beautifully struck free kick hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced to safety.
The Galaxy won that game 1-0 and will be looking to secure their place in this year’s MLS Cup when the two sides meet again at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.
“Obviously, they’re going to mark Landon and Robbie closely, because they’re a threat all the time, and that gives me a little more space on the right, and that’s what I like,” said Isihizaki after last week’s win.
With attentions focused elsewhere, Ishizaki has been able to express himself more and recognition has come in the form of a nomination for this year’s MLS Newcomer of the Year Award.
If he sees off Pedro Morales (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution) Ishizaki will become the first Galaxy player to receive the honour.
“I think there’s always a transition period for international players, and it took him a little time to get into the league, understand it, deal with the travel and everything else,” says Galaxy coach Bruce Arena.
“But I think he’s been a real good player for us this year. He’s been a real positive addition to our team. He’s a great teammate and he’s well-liked on the club. We’re just real happy to have him.”
Ishizaki, whose father is Japanese, began his professional career in his native Sweden with AIK, and in 1999 became the youngest player ever to win the domestic cup.
A spell with Genoa in Italy followed before he headed to Valarenga in Norway where he claimed top league honours as the club broke Rosenborg’s record of 13 successive Tippeligaen titles.
His return to Sweden with Elfsborg yielded two Allsvenkan winners medals and he has 13 international caps to his name having debuted against France in 2001.
A player with such a strong pedigree would be an asset to any MLS side, and the Galaxy have benefitted from his strong showings both from the start and off the substitutes bench.
“If you had a pickup game, Stefan would be a guy you’d [pick] right away because he’ll understand who he’s playing with pretty quickly and take it from there, and the soccer connections almost are immediate,” says Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan.
Ishizaki’s 1.8 key passes per game puts him behind only Donovan (3.5) and Keane (1.9), and he averages more crosses (1.6 per game) than anyone else in the Galaxy squad bar Donovan (1.8).
Sunday’s game represents another opportunity for Ishizaki to shine and it’s a challenge he’s relishing.
“We’ve got to be really clean, 100 percent focused the whole game,” he says.
“We’ve got to be aggressive and press them. We’ve got to make it hard for them to play. That’s when they get frustrated, and that’s when we can take advantage of them.”
If Ishizaki can continue his excellent recent form then the Galaxy have a great chance of reaching MLS Cup for the ninth time.