Daily Sports Smile: USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta embraces Japanese-American heritage

Jan 27, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; United States midfielder Kellyn Acosta (23) dribbles the ball while El Salvador forward Jairo Henriquez (17) defends during a CONCACAF FIFA World Cup Qualifier soccer match at Lower.com Field.
Emily Olsen
USA TODAY Sports+

Kellyn Acosta is an accomplished midfielder for Los Angeles Football Club and the United States men’s national team. He’s also a proud Japanese-American. 

His Japanese heritage may not be the first thing people know about Acosta, but he recently took time to write about his roots in an essay for The Players’ Tribune

“Thankfully I’m at a point in my life where I’m embracing my identity, which is why I’m writing this for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month,” Acosta wrote. “It’s been a long journey to get here though, which is why I want to tell my story.”

Acosta, who is Black, grew up in the predominantly white neighborhood of Plano, Texas. Many people questioned his Asian heritage. 

“Some people continue to insist that I’m not. Sometimes I have resorted to showing pictures of my family. Hard proof, right? Case closed.”

His father was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and lived there for 10 years before moving to the United states. Acosta's grandmother, Mimi, played a major role in his life. She was also another part of Acosta that didn’t make sense to outsiders. 

For years, Acosta, 26, tried to fit into the image of others, but through close friends and his Brazilian soccer mentor — former professional player Zequinha — he found his way to something uniquely him.

“It’s only in these last few years that I have fully embraced my complete identity. Once I did that, it was like the clouds made way for the sunshine,” Acosta wrote. “I love that I understand so many cultures and that I can relate to so many people, like a social chameleon.”

The midfielder could be the first Japanese-American to represent the U.S. at a World Cup if he makes coach Gregg Berhalter’s final roster in November. He's in his 11th season, and on his third team, in MLS. Acosta joined the youth ranks of the U.S. national team in 2010 and has made 51 appearances for the senior team — dating back to 2016. 

This month, he spent six hours learning about his culture with his grandmother and father at the Japanese American National Museum in L.A. He watched his family remember their time on the island country, including Mimi's memories of seeking sanctuary in a cave during war.

“After that I looked at her and dad with awe. Even though they had been strict with me, I thanked them for the upbringing they had given me,” Acosta wrote. “I’m Japanese-American. How could I hear those stories and not be proud of who I am?”

“Whoever you are, I hope you embrace your identity too.”