Irvine Zeta’s Shinya Kadono: The Pride of NISA

Shinya Kadona has finally found a steady home with Southern California-based NISA side Irvine Zeta – where he’s rekindling his passion for the game and making a mark in the U.S. Open Cup.
By: Dennis Pope

There is perhaps no better example of the importance of the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) to the U.S. soccer ecosystem than Shinya Kadono.

A native of Irvine, California, Kadono’s path has taken him from an elite youth academy to scoring goals in the Open Cup. But without NISA’s platform for independent clubs, his own soccer story may well have been cut short.

“Without the league I haven’t been able to compete and showcase myself and I definitely feel grateful to be a part of the league’s history,” said Kadono, Irvine Zeta FC’s marquee signing during this last offseason.

Emerged as a fully-fledged star in NISA, Kadono brings a veteran presence to Zeta FC as the Division III pros check off a number of firsts in 2024, starting with their first two Open Cup victories and now a Third-Round matchup at Monterey Bay FC of the USL Championship on Wednesday.

“I’m hoping [Zeta FC] can start getting recognized more and more and I think being successful in competitions like the Open Cup can really be helpful,” Kadono said.

Open About his Struggles

Kadono said he first started to think seriously about a career as a professional during his junior year at UC Berkeley.

“That’s why I decided to go to Cal out of high school, since they produce a lot of professionals,” said Kadono, who scored one of the best goals of the 2024 Open Cup with a screamer against SC MesoAmerica in the First Round that he calls “the best” of his career. “There are a lot of men’s national team alums and guys who are still playing in MLS, so I knew that the program was great for me.”

Drafted by D.C. United in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, Kadono scored during the preseason but admits to letting the ups-and-downs of early life as a professional get the better of him.

Kadono (second from right) for Cal United Strikers against LA Galaxy in 2022

“I knew that the level was going to be higher and I felt like I had some good days but I think the main problem was consistency,” he admitted. “I’d have days when I’d be playing really well but then after that, the next day at training, I’m not performing [and] I think the mental side of the game, when I’m not performing, I was feeling down a lot. That was affecting my performance even more, and I think that was the biggest reason for me.”

Without making a league appearance for D.C. United in 2019, Kadono signed with nearby Loudoun United FC in the USL Championship for 10 games and was then loaned to South Georgia Tormenta in USL League One for another 10 games after that.

He was feeling bounced around and unsure about the future when his phone rang.

“At the end of the season [with Tormenta] the staff from Strikers reached out to me,” he said. “Since my first year as a pro was pretty rough, and on the mental side I wasn’t in the greatest spot, I thought it would be good for me to come back and be in a familiar environment and try to find joy in the game again.”

Cal United Original

Signed by the California United Strikers FC in February of 2020 – days before the Covid-19 shutdown in U.S. professional sports went into effect in early March – Kadono didn’t exactly find that fresh start.

“COVID hitting affected me also,” he said. “Being away from the field and not being able to practice with the team definitely played a role in my mental state.

“But as I got more comfortable playing with the guys I started really enjoying playing again and I’d say in 2022 is when the club found the most success overall, the Open Cup run and playing against LA Galaxy, and me scoring against them and winning the respect for NISA,” Kadono said. “That was big.”

Kadono’s early goal put a team of mostly Galaxy reserves (plus captain and former USMNT star Sacha Kljestan) on their heels before the two-time Open Cup champs battled back to hold on for 4-3 win in front of the largest-ever crowd to date at Championship Stadium at Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
Kadono in his playing days for Cal Berkeley

“That was one of the greatest matches I’ve played in my whole soccer career,” Kadono said. “Going into the game we knew that the whole stadium was going to be packed and everyone was so excited for it, and even when we were warming up and you saw all the Galaxy fans coming out with chants and stuff. That was really cool.

“We started off the game really, really hot,” Kadono remembered. “I intercepted the ball, started a little short counter and I scored against my former teammate from Cal, Jonathan Klinsmann, and we celebrated in front of their fans. I remember trying to do a knee slide in front of their fans and failing. That was definitely the high moment in my career. The whole game was great.

“Unfortunately, we lost but we fought until the final whistle,” he said. “I think we showed that even if you’re playing at a lower division and people don’t recognize you, that doesn't mean you can’t compete with the top division. I think we showed that we can also play.”

And Back Again

Unable to find a new primary owner, Cal United Strikers FC dissolved after the 2022 season and Kadono took an offer to stay in NISA with ALBION San Diego.

“I was able to catch on at Albion and they were able to welcome me pretty quickly,” he said. “I lived down in San Diego for the first time. I never really explored San Diego so that was really fun, being in a new environment, new people, that was a valuable experience for me [and] even though it was out of town, it was still Southern California and that was definitely good.”

ALBION’s decision to put its professional club on hiatus in 2024 meant Kadono, 27, was again weighing his options, his future and measuring what the game means to him.

“I think I’m at a pretty good age to re-recognize the love of the game,” said Kadono who’s “proud to be a part of the club’s history” in this debut Open Cup run. “It’s easy to transition to see soccer as your job and lose joy in a game, but I feel that I’m really, really enjoying playing again and showcasing myself and my ability.

“Now with Zeta, I’m really enjoying it and feeling great,” he said with the confidence of a young man feeling right at home.

Dennis Pope writes about local sports for the SoCal Newspaper Group and serves in a communications role for both NISA Nation and the Southwest Premier League. Follow him at @DennisPope on X/Twitter.