By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
The excitement of women’s international soccer made a stop in Seattle last week as four national teams, including the United States and the Japan Women’s National Soccer Team, played in the inaugural Tournament of Nations exhibition on July 27 at CenturyLink Field.
The Tournament of Nations brought the best in women’s international soccer together to compete, including the United States (ranked 1st in the world), Australia (7th), Brazil, (8th), and Japan (6th). Seattle played host to two matches on the same night. Japan played Brazil and Australia played the United States. The teams played a round robin format with games happening in Seattle, Carson, Calif., and San Diego.
The Seattle Reign FC’s midfielder Rumi Utsugi was picked to play for Team Japan for the Tournament of Nations. She was the only representative from the Reign and only Japanese player to play for a U.S. soccer club on the team. Utsugi was on the 2011 FIFA Women’s team that won the World Cup and the only Japanese player to play with a French top division soccer club.
Overall, Team Japan looked relaxed heading into their match against Team Brazil at Centurylink. The team had a relaxed practice on a sunny Monday afternoon prior to the Thursday game at Grass Lawn Park in Redmond. The team dribbled the soccer ball around, played a couple of easy games, and kept loose while many laughed and smiled throughout the one-hour practice. Several onlookers, including several girl soccer players, watched as some of the best players in the world kicked the soccer ball around.
The current Reign FC player spent a few minutes answering some questions from the Northwest Asian Weekly after practice. Utsugi said she was happy to represent Japan and to play in front of soccer fans in Seattle. Through her interpreter, she said she hoped her teammates and her Reign coach would be there. Utsugi joined the Seattle Reign FC in 2016 and came back to play for the team this year. Despite a leg injury in June, she appeared to be fully recovered. “Very nice,” Utsugi said of her stay in Seattle. “There are a lot of Japanese people and a lot of Japanese food.”
Utsugi gets to face Reign FC teammate and U.S. Women’s Soccer’s Megan Rapinoe when Team USA meets Team Japan in the round robin tournament. “Megan has been helping me out a lot,” Utsugi said of the Reign FC veteran, “[b]ut when it comes to the national team, I want to lead her to make some mistakes,” said Utsugi, showing her competitive attitude.
After practice, some of the girls that watched practice asked Utsugi for her autograph and the 28-year-old, originally from Kanagawa Prefecture, obliged.
Notably, three of the four teams participating had women head coaches, including Team Japan’s Emily Lima, which could be seen as advancement for women coaches.
Lima thought it was important, but did not place too much emphasis on the number of women coaches. “From my point of view, I think it’s a good thing to have female coaches, but as a coach, the gender really doesn’t matter. It’s more important to educate and develop players.” Lima believed that participating in the Tournament of Nations was useful in preparing for future international play. “This is a very important opportunity for us and the players to experience the world level place with global players.”
Some analysts believe that Japan is in a rebuilding phase of its national team. The Japan women’s national team won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup of Women’s Soccer with an upset over the United States in one of the most exciting finals ever. It followed up that performance by earning a Silver medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics as well as a second place in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. However, the national team failed to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Tournament of Nations served as training for the upcoming 2020 in Tokyo and the 2019 World Cup in France.
On game day, Utsugi received a smattering of applause from the sparse crowd. To accommodate both matches, the game with Brazil started at 4:15pm in Seattle with Team USA playing Australia later that night. Thus, the stands did not fill up until later in the game.
In the game, Japan’s Kumi Yokoyama had an early attempt at a goal, as she snuck her way past defenders and received a ball. An error by the Brazilian goalkeeper meant another attempt at a goal, but another shot went wide. Goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita withstood 3 shots on goal in succession from the aggressive Brazilian offense.
Team Japan finally broke through in the second half to take the lead 1-0 on a header by Yuka Momiki. Momiki was a second half replacement and made the most of her time in the game.
Team Brazil, which looked disorganized most of the game, put it together with a goal from Camila. In the end, it ended in a tie, 1-1. Despite the tie game, the fans cheered both teams as the players waived to the stands.
Team Japan, as a unit, took a bow before the appreciative fans.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.