Paulo Nagamura comes through in clutch for Sporting KC with his first header goal – ever

Sporting Kansas City were 15 minutes and change from their fifth draw in nine matches, and their third without a goal.

Then Jalil Anibaba took the ball in the right corner, picked out a teammate in the penalty area and sent in a high cross – to a guy who had never scored with his head.

Ever.

And then Paulo Nagamura looped a beautiful ball over Chicago 'keeper Sean Johnson and into the upper left corner, delivering the game-winner in Sunday's 1-0 home victory over the Chicago Fire.

“This was the first one. So, 32 years,” Nagamura told reporters with a laugh when asked when he'd last headed one in. “Fortunately, it came at a good time and we got the full three points.”

The 32-year-old Brazilian midfielder has been no stranger to clutch performances since coming to Sporting before the 2012 season – the year that saw Nagamura, with a cheekful of stitches after an early-match collision, deliver the winning conversion in the penalty stage of their U.S. Open Cup final win over Seattle.

He was there, too, for their MLS Cup victory in 2013 – once again, converting his penalty during the 10-round ordeal that settled Sporting's second title.

But his career has also been marked by injury, and his minutes have been down this season with the return of Roger Espinoza after two years with England's Wigan Athletic. He has made five appearances this season, a total of 312 minutes, and came on Sunday as a second-half sub for Espinoza.

“I always say that I know my role on the team,” he said. “As long as they want me here, I'm going to give 100 percent for the team. Maybe it's tougher to be on the sidelines, on the bench, and watching the other guys play, but you have to be smart and you have to be reasonable, to wait for your chance and make the most of it when your chance comes.”

That's why Nagamura is so highly regarded by his teammates, and by manager Peter Vermes.

“I have a soft spot for Naga,” Vermes said during his postgame press conference. “He is a winner to me. He is a guy that when I became the coach, I really went after him. When I was the technical director here, I was trying to get him for years. I think he has an incredible winning mentality. He's a fantastic professional. He's a good leader with in the guys and all the guys respect him.”

And when Vermes called on him against the Fire, Nagamura delivered.

“I never doubt that he's going to come into the game and give everything he has,” Vermes said. “He's 5-foot-nothing and he's going up against a guy that is 6-foot-4 and his first action of the game is he's trying to win a header. That's just the way he competes and it's big for the rest of our players when he's out there.”

Center back and captain Matt Besler echoed Vermes' sentiments.

“Personally, I have just so much respect for that guy, because he shows up and he puts it in every single day, even when things aren't going as well as he probably would like right now,” Besler said. “He holds his head high, he buys into the team, and when he's called on, he makes a very big play for us tonight.”

Nagamura, for his part, was quick to give credit to Anibaba for the assist.

“It was just a great ball from Jalil,” he said. “I was just trying to be in a good place inside the box and redirect it away from the goalie.”

Nagamura laughed again, when a reporter asked if he thought he'd gotten enough on the ball to get it past Johnson.

“Didn't you see the replay?” he asked. “That was a great header.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.

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