Goals are like ketchup. DU Snow Clasico winner worth the wait.
DU senior Kengo Ohira came nearly 6,000 miles for great soccer in Denver ... and stayed for the sushi.
Please don’t let the rest of America in on our little secret. But right here in Denver, it’s not hard to enjoy sublime sushi or sensational soccer, if you’re willing to brave a snowstorm to find the good stuff.
“There’s this ramen place near Wash Park, it’s called Uncle … And what’s your price point? Sushi Den is always great,” Kengo Ohira told me, as snowflakes melted on his eyebrows and his mouth watered at thought of delicious Japanese food he’s discovered nearly 6,000 miles from his hometown of Tokyo.
It was top-drawer soccer, however, that brought Ohira to Colorado from halfway around the world. And the University of Denver couldn’t be happier that he’s here.
On a Thursday afternoon that encased the soccer stadium on DU’S campus in a snow globe, Ohira plowed through a winter storm to score the only goal the Pioneers needed to survive the elements and advance from the opening round of the NCAA Tournament with a 1-0 victory against the University of San Diego.
It took 93 minutes for DU to get on the scoreboard. Yes, it was frustrating for the Pioneers, as well as nerve-wracking for the brave 194 spectators who shivered in the stands.
“Goals are like ketchup,” Ohira said. “Sometimes it seems they just don’t want to come out. And then they come, all at once.”
The 5-foot-10 senior forward barreled through the San Diego defense and pounced on a rebound to produce a pure-grit score that resulted in an overtime victory. The Toreros were a feisty, hard-tackling crew that proved to be no day at the beach, despite playing almost half of the game a man down following a red card to Rhys Gourdie, sent off for a dangerous challenge on DU defender Ronan Wynne.
“In an aesthetic sense, it was not a beautiful goal,” said Ohira, who expects more of himself than the two times he put a shot in the back of the net during regular-season competition. “I feel like that goal represents the season for me so far. It hasn’t been going really well, but it’s all about doing the dirty work that some people don’t want to do.”
The beauty of this dusty old cowtown is how it has matured
into a world-class city, attracting bright young people like Ohira from near and far.
“From Tokyo to Denver, it’s more than a long way, there’s a lot of cultural differences,” Ohira said.
“But what has been great for me — and what I’m most proud of — is how my teammates and coaches understood how hard it is to adjust to a new culture. I was shy to speak when I first got here. My English was not great. So they can take all the credit for helping me with the language and making me feel comfortable.”
This Snow Clasico proved to be tough sledding for the ninth-ranked Pioneers, who had to survive an early onslaught from the Toreros, who dominated the first 30 minutes. The visitors from sunny California put freshman goalie Isaac Nehme of Colorado Springs under constant pressure he calmly endured, with a little luck that allowed one wicked shot to bounce harmlessly off the crossbar.
“I thought we used halftime to better ourselves,” DU coach Jamie Franks said. “We changed some things in our system of play. Our plan coming in could have worked, but with the conditions, we couldn’t get the ball down and get the rhythm and tempo we really wanted. After going a man-up, it was important to take the right calculated risks, and I thought we did.”
As snow blanketed the pitch, turning the field into something more suitable for cross-country skiing, Franks gathered the Pioneers around him after the victory, applauding the players for booking a flight to North Carolina, where they will face Duke on the weekend.
“Maybe not our best game,” Franks told the Pioneers. “But all that matters now is to find a way to survive and advance.”
It was a fine pep talk, kept short and sweet out of respect for the weather.
While shuffling my boots in the snow as Franks talked, I got a powerful hankering for Hamachi Kama at Kiki’s on South Colorado Boulevard.
“Japanese food in Denver,” Ohira said, “is legit.”
And goals are like ketchup. Always worth the wait for a hungry heart.