By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- Taishi Ukai wowed his teammates with a little sleight of hand during a preseason dinner for Central's boys soccer team, as he performed several card tricks that head coach Ted Poor said left more than a few Falcons "mesmerized."
In last Friday night's season opener against visiting Warren County, Ukai showed he's got a deft touch with his feet, too.
Ukai, a foreign exchange student from Nagoya, Japan, made his American high school soccer debut a memorable one, as he tallied two goals and two assists in Central's 4-2 win over the Wildcats.
Poor said Ukai -- who also ran cross country and swam for the Falcons during the fall and winter seasons -- is typically one to "measure his energy," so even he was slightly surprised to see Ukai constantly streaking up and down the field on Friday.
"When I saw him playing the other night, I was as surprised as anybody was about the energy that he put out," Poor said on Tuesday.
For his efforts, Ukai has been named The Northern Virginia Daily's Male Athlete of the Week for March 16-22.
Ukai said he was nervous about playing his first varsity match for Central, as he wasn't sure what to expect from the American version of the sport that he's been playing back home since he was 6 years old.
But those apprehensions seemed to disappear quickly on Friday, as he assisted on Tyler Bosserman's first goal of the season in the 16th minute that put the Falcons up 1-0. Ukai scored his first goal just five minutes later, as he broke loose behind Warren County's defensive line following a pass ahead by teammate Franklin Hernandez. Ukai dribbled into the penalty box and eased up before poking the ball past Wildcats keeper Tristan Ward.
"I was watching the goalie very carefully because he jumped," Ukai said on Tuesday. "I didn't know which way [he was going to go]. He jumped left, so I kicked right."
Ukai tallied his second assist on Bosserman's goal in the 54th minute, and Ukai essentially sealed the win for Central when he chipped in a shot from about 15 yards out for his second goal of the night, which gave the Falcons a 4-1 lead with 10 minutes to play.
"When you get an exchange student, it's really difficult to implement them ... but Taishi listens and he's adapted," said Poor, who praised Ukai's field vision when passing and his ability to maintain possession of the ball. "He's not a ball-hog by any stretch of the imagination. He knows we want the ball to go side to side and he's really bought into the system."
Poor said he wasn't sure how Ukai would respond to the physicality that resides in American soccer, and Ukai said the biggest difference from the style of soccer in Japan is the overall size of the players on the field.
"American people are a little bit taller than us," Ukai said. "The difference was there were many big guys and there were [a lot] of tackles and stuff, but the referee didn't say anything. It's very hard to play like that."
But Ukai, who is technically a sophomore but is considered a senior at Central, has had plenty of practice against soccer players who are a little bit bigger than he is.
"My older brother, he was 7 years old and he played soccer with his friends. I played soccer with them," Ukai said. "Of course they could play better than I because they were older. But I practiced a lot with them ... I think that's why I can play better.
"Even when I play varsity I can play my style."
Ukai's style fits perfectly with the Falcons, who were in need of another high-energy goal scorer after the graduation of all-time leading scorer Stephen Hamrick last spring.
"I was wondering what I was going to do for scoring without Stephen, and I think I found the answer," Poor said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org