Holed up in his Hoboken, N.J., abode, Kaku is itching for a return to the field but acknowledges there are other, more important priorities right now in a region that has become the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the United States.
"Football takes a back seat, we don't think about it," Kaku told ESPN. "Instead, health is the most important thing, and that the world returns to how it was before."
It's been a difficult period of social distancing for everybody, but for players used to being outside, training every day and enjoying the camaraderie that comes from team sports, it has its own difficulties. But it's also a time of reflection, and when the Red Bulls' left-footed No. 10 looks over the Hudson River at the iconic and crisis-stricken New York City, it offers a reminder of how much the 25-year-old's own world has been turned on its head.
Kaku comes from the neighborhood of Ciudadela in Argentina, to the west of Buenos Aires' city center and just outside the city's boundary. He and his 11 siblings (six sisters and five brothers) were raised close to Barrio Ejercito de los Andes, more commonly known as Fuerte Apache -- the notorious housing project from which Carlos Tevez emerged to become one of the most respected forwards in world football.
It's inevitable to ask about "Apache: The Life of Carlos Tevez," the dramatized Netflix series based on Tevez's tough upbringing navigating his way around shootings and gang-related trouble, and Kaku, who has seen the show, smiles when he remembers playing teams from Tevez's Fuerte Apache.
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"It's more tranquil [in my part of Ciudadela], but there are similarities," Kaku said, talking in the lobby of a luxury resort just outside of Tucson, Ariz., during the Red Bulls' preseason. "Those things happen, you just have to be with your family in the right place and it'll be fine."
Football pitches within two blocks of the house Kaku grew up in provided escape from a crowded home and enabled the technically gifted forward to play against older players regularly. Like most of Argentina, Ciudadela is a football-mad place, and Kaku's house was no different. In fact, three of his younger siblings are following his path at his first club Huracan, including sister Lourdes; all are left-footed No. 10s.
The move to New York Red Bulls from Huracan in February 2018 "changed my life."
Football is Kaku's passion. It has boiled over on occasion in MLS -- most infamously when he kicked a ball into the stands and struck a Sporting Kansas City fan last April -- but as well as being a passion, it is also a way to help out his large family.
"When I was a boy, I dreamed about buying my parents a house," he said. "I didn't think just about playing football, I wanted them to have a better life."
When the drawn-out move to MLS finally happened, Kaku bought his family the house he dreamed of getting them, but his mother, Gladys, wasn't there to witness it.
Gladys died in September 2017, less than six months before his big move became reality, leaving a giant hole in the player's life. She had traveled to help clean and cook when Kaku left home at age 14 to join Huracan's youth team, encouraged him to keep going when things weren't going well before that at River Plate's ultracompetitive youth setup, and helped him keep his feet on the ground when first-team recognition and Copa Libertadores success came his way at Huracan.
The name on the No. 10 shirt when Kaku was presented in New York read "R. Gamarra" in tribute to his mother's surname.
"Yes, she was very important for me because she helped me think about how to manage money and not waste it," Kaku said. "When you are very young and you get money you don't know what to do, whether you should buy yourself a car, but she was very important for me."
Kaku's wife is from the same Ciudadela neighborhood, growing up around the corner from the future Huracan playmaker. They met at the age of 14, and, like in the Romero clan, her parents are also Paraguayan. Now with a family of their own, the couple make a point of returning to give their kids an insight of where they are from.
"It's different [to New York], but I make them see reality by taking them to where I was born, so they can be with my family," Kaku said. "I think the most important thing is not to forget where they come from, even though they have a very different life in New York than in Ciudadela."
Kaku's parents, grandparents and his older siblings were all born in Paraguaybefore moving to Argentina, and the neighborhood was split when Argentina and Paraguay faced off in international matches. That made his decision to switch to the Paraguay national team in 2018 relatively easy, even though he had represented Argentina at the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand in 2015.
"When I was younger, someone who worked in the Paraguayan national team asked me if I wanted to obtain [Paraguayan] nationality," said Kaku, who doesn't speak much Guarani, Paraguay's official language alongside Spanish. "I'd already talked with my mother and father about the decision to represent Paraguay, so it wasn't difficult."
The closeness of the Romero Gamarra clan was partly why Kaku publicly pushed for a move to Club America in January 2019 in what became a messy transfer saga and one for which the player later apologized to the Red Bulls. He stresses that being away from his family and difficulties obtaining visas for them to visit left him frustrated and made Mexico City and the Liga MX giant an attractive proposition.
"In that moment, I was looking at it to be closer to my family because they couldn't come here to the United States due to the visa, so it was a very difficult [first] year for me because I was far from my family and I wanted to be nearer," Kaku said.
The visa issue has since been resolved, and he is excited to show his family around New York whenever the coronavirus crisis abates.
Kaku, a nickname derived from a similarity in playing style to the great Brazilian Kaka and his penchant for holding on to the ball when he was young, had never even been to the United States before joining the Red Bulls. He was struck initially by the difference in temperature between New York and the preseason setting of Arizona, and the clash of styles in MLS compared to Argentina.
"In MLS, they don't kick you as much," he said. "In Argentina or when you play in the [Copa] Libertadores, they lift you into the air, you have to be strong. You have fewer seconds to think. Here they run more, you're running for 90 minutes, but you have more space to think."
Kaku's first two seasons in MLS were a "learning experience," according to the player. He generated 15 assists and scored six times in 34 games in the 2018 season and followed it up with eight assists and five goals in 25 matches in 2019.
The former Huracan player had earmarked 2020 as the year to up those numbers, which weren't bad but didn't set the league alight. The plan is to help guide the Red Bulls to a deep MLS Cup run, make an impact for Paraguay in World Cup qualifying and attract attention from European clubs.
The first two games of the season went well. Before the break in play for Major League Soccer, Kaku and the Red Bulls picked up four points from two games, and he scored a goal 27 minutes into the season against FC Cincinnati. As he plays wide in Chris Armas' 4-2-2-2 system, the games also highlighted just how crucial, once again, his performances will be to any success New York has this season.
Whenever things do get back to normal, Kaku wants to be more ruthless in front of goal. He's looking to be slightly more selfish and sees LAFC's left-footed Mexican Carlos Vela as an example of finding the balance of when to shoot and when to pass.
"I'm trying to score more," Kaku said. "Many times I give passes or assists when I should finish the play myself. I have to think a little bit more in the moment. Sometimes, I look at Carlos Vela; he assists but he also scores goals."
For now, all that is on hold. Instead, Kaku is testing his taste buds, drawing and playing with his kids, but when MLS does return, the Argentine-Paraguayan has set his own bar high.
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