U.S.-Trained Coach Kenichi Yatsuhashi Settles in Ghana
December 16, 2015
GHANAIAN GIANT Hearts of Oak had hit a snag.
A club with an impressive history that includes 20 Ghanaian-league titles and 10 Ghanaian FA Cup titles, Hearts of Oak in 2000 had claimed the CAF Champions League as Africa’s best team. Twice before it was the runner-up. But since 2009 it had not earned any silverware at all, and when it came time to find an all-important new coach this past October, 46-year-old Kenichi Yatsuhashi was the man tasked with the turnaround.
Yatsuhashi, mind you, was hardly the obvious choice: At at the time of his appointment, he had never before coached at the professional level. Most of his coaching experience, in fact, had come at the U.S. collegiate level, and not at UCLA, UVA, or Georgetown, either—he was at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III level.
“The Hearts of Oak fans have been very frustrated,” Yatsuhashi told American Soccer Now from Ghana. “They want to see Hearts of Oak winning the league and also the FA Cup. Whether we can achieve that in my first year, I really don't know. I am trying my best.
"I am not saying we can't; everyone has a chance. But it is going to be difficult and challenging. Looking at the talent we have and how quickly we are adapting under me, I think it is a quite good possibility that we can shock everyone in a positive way.”
Yatsuhashi has every right to be ambitious: Up until six years ago, he had been the coach of lowly Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City.
After taking the job in 2001, Yatsuhashi led BMCC to a third-place finish at the 2005 NJCAA nationals and that year was named junior college coach of the year. He left the school in 2009—having become frustrated over what he saw as soccer not being a high enough priority—and returned to his native Japan, taking a role within the Japanese soccer federation. Then, from 2012 to 2014, he suddenly had become the technical director for the federation of Kyrgyzstan.
Yatsuhashi actually is not an American citizen, but the roots of his rise can nonetheless be traced back, oddly, to the United States. Yatsuhashi originally came to the country in 1986 to study art; more or less ever since, he has been studying soccer instead.
In time, he earned his U.S. Soccer Federation "A" coaching licenses and a U.S.S.F. "National Youth" coaching license, as well as various others from CONCACAF, FIFA, and the AFC. At one point he traveled to Qatar to work with several prominent European coaches in a quest to learn.
“Most of my coaching education happened in the United States, but I did not go to the U.S. to be a coach,” Yatsuhashi said. “I went to the United States to go to college. I wanted to be an artist. I started coaching during my college days in 1992. The national youth coaching from U.S. Soccer was the most influential course I've ever had. I am still using a lot of what I learned in that course—a more player-centered approach—not only for young kids but also for older kids and senior players.”
Yatsuhashi went to school in New York and, falling in love with the city, earned his green card and stayed for 23 years. At one point he became eligible for American citizenship, but the paperwork and applications fees were around $1,000, so he passed. It was an opportunity he now regrets.
But Yatsuhashi did not pass on Hearts of Oak, and Hearts of Oak (perhaps a bit fortunately) did not pass on him. He applied for the opening with the help of a few agents he knew in Asia, and with his résumé boosted by his licensing, he soon found himself among the final three. What happened next remains unclear, even to Yatsuhashi, but the other two candidates thereafter became unavailable.
Yatsuhashi got the job.
But to say that he’s a controversial coach in Ghana would be an understatement. Some reports have even suggested that he will have to win the title in his first year to keep his job.
“I was very shocked on the first day,” Yatsuhashi recalled. “This was the first time I was ever criticized this much before my first day training. But there are also some people who are really supporting me. The attention that I am getting on the television, the radio, the Internet, the print media—my picture is there every day.
“I never coached a professional team before. This was the first time an Asian coach has come to coach a Ghanaian team. So people are very, very critical. But when I woke up on the second day, I started to enjoy the pressure. From that moment on, anything people said, either positive or negative, I have been able to convert that energy positively into my motivation, so it's been good.”
The season is set to start in early 2016, and Yatsuhashi is happy with Hearts of Oak’s preseason progress. He also understands, though, that the team has a long way to go if it hopes to surpass last season’s fourth-place finish and perhaps even contend for the championship.
But if there’s anyone who knows how to help a club go a long way, perhaps it’s a man who’s come a long way himself.
Yatsuhashi is still himself surprised at his personal journey, one that he acknowledges is decidedly unconventional. He skipped “two stages” of a path he outlined for himself at one point, he admits—but that doesn’t mean he’s reached his peak.
While he says his present is completely focused on Hearts of Oak, Yatsuhashi keeps an eye on American soccer, particularly with New York City FC and the New York Cosmos having sprouted up since he left, right within his favorite city.
“I definitely want to return at one point,” Yatsuhashi said. “Whether that option comes to me at one point, only God knows. But I hope I can. Even though I worked for the Japanese Football Association for two years, my base is in the U.S. That is the way I think I am unique and different from many coaches.
“Of course I have a background as a Japanese person, but the way I think and do things is influenced largely not just because of the United States but New York City, where I lived for 23 years. It is a city where there are a lot of competitions and a lot of diversity. It's a dynamic city, and I feel very comfortable there.
"I love that city. I definitely feel my home is New York."
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.