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RailHawks' Leo Osaki patiently fighting to return to the field

Posted July 28, 2015

May 2, 2015; Cary, NC, USA; The Tampa Bay Rowdies visited the Carolina RailHawks in an NASL spring season match. The teams drew 1-1. (Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-Carolina RailHawks)

— Leo Osaki played one of his best games for the Carolina RailHawks on May 30 against the Jacksonville Armada. After starting the opening six games of the 2015 regular season, the young Japanese midfielder played a total of just three minutes over Carolina’s next two league matches. Three days before traveling to Jacksonville, he was an unused substitute as the Charlotte Independence bounced the RailHawks from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Osaki not only returned to the starting XI at Jacksonville, he scored off a free kick and drew a penalty that led to another goal as the RailHawks trounced the Armada 4-0.

“That game meant a lot to me,” Osaki remembered. “I had been out a couple of games, and the coaches gave me another chance.”

Osaki started a week later against Minnesota United FC at WakeMed Soccer Park, the RailHawks’ final game of the North American Soccer League (NASL) spring season. However, he was summarily subbed off at halftime and hasn’t appeared in Carolina’s five games since.

The cause of Osaki’s sudden absence from the RailHawks’ gameday roster is a heart abnormality that the 23-year-old has sporadically and silently suffered for months.

“It only happened once last year,” Osaki said. “I didn’t think it was a big problem.”

This year, Osaki said he began experiencing increased heart rate and fatigue during training once or twice a week.

“It was like I wasn’t fit, but I had done preseason with the team and played the whole first half of the season,” Osaki said. “There’s no way I’m not fit.”

Osaki already planned to see a physician in Japan while visiting his family during the NASL’s midseason break. However, the Minnesota match on June 6 was the first time Osaki felt any effects during a game, and he admits, it “freaked me out.”

“I was tired in the first 10-15 minutes, and I was trying to push myself through it,” Osaki said. “After the first half, I told coach just to sub me out.”

After the game, Osaki informed RailHawks manager Colin Clarke for the first time about his heart concerns and intention to see a cardiologist in Japan. Osaki underwent stress and diagnostic testing that indicated a lower than normal cardiac output, or the volume of blood pumped by the heart per minute.

Osaki says the cardiologist in Japan provided Osaki with medication to decrease his heart rate as needed and medically cleared him to resume soccer. Osaki returned to North Carolina on July 14. The RailHawks want him to undergo further evaluation from an area cardiac specialist before he resumes training.

THE JOURNEY TO PRO SOCCER

Osaki was born in Tokyo but moved to Hawaii with his parents when he was 1-year-old. After living there for 10 years, his family moved back to Japan, where Osaki eventually attended and played soccer for Toin Yokohama University. Days after graduating from college in January 2014, Osaki was on a flight bound for the InfoSport Pro Soccer Combine in Florida.

There, Osaki caught the eye of Clarke and other members of the RailHawks’ coaching staff, who invited him to trial with the club in March 2014. Osaki had never heard of the NASL, much less the Carolina RailHawks. He impressed Carolina’s coaches but could not sign with the team until June because of delays in obtaining his International Transfer Certificate (ITC). Osaki saw his first action for the RailHawks on July 12, 2014 against Indy Eleven, and he eventually appeared in 14 of Carolina’s 18 games during the 2014 NASL fall season.

Osaki happily recalled his first professional goal off a free kick at home against the New York Cosmos. But a more illustrative episode was one that most RailHawks fans didn’t see.

Last fall, Osaki started a midweek scrimmage between the RailHawks and the UNC men’s soccer team in Chapel Hill, a game delayed several hours due to thunderstorms. During the chippy match, a UNC player slid hard into the legs of trialist Gabe Latigue, who was attempting a career comeback from ACL knee surgery. Mere minutes later, Osaki launched himself (and his elbow) into the offending Tar Heel, drawing a straight red card.

Osaki sheepishly recalled getting sent off during a scrimmage, the only red card of his soccer career. However, the incident was emblematic of the reciprocal respect between Osaki and his often older teammates, who have encouraged him throughout his recent absence.

“When I was in Japan, the coaches and players were texting and calling me, worrying about me,” Osaki said. “Everyone was happy when I got back.”

Osaki is trying to remain as fit as possible on his own as he awaits an appointment with another cardiologist. His parents, who have yet to see him play pro soccer, hope to visit North Carolina before the end of this season.

And, of course, Osaki is anxious to help his RailHawks teammates during the team’s push towards the NASL playoffs.

“I really want to get back on the field as soon as possible, but at the same time, I have to be careful and stay patient,” he said. “I want to play many more years.”

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  • David Boss Jul 28, 2015
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    Great to see a non-match recap story on the Railhawks! We need more stories like this more often. Hope Leo gets back to normal and controls the heart problem.

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