The USA’s top nemesis in the Women’s World Cup comes into 2019 with plenty of questions to answer, despite winning it all in 2011 and placing second in 2015. A disastrous failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics ended the eight-year tenure of Japanese manager Norio Sasaki, and as Japan enter their first major international tournament since that change of leadership, they arrive with a much younger, much less experienced team than we’ve seen before.
Half of Japan’s 20 outfield players are 22 years old or younger, and only three players are older than 28. Last year’s U-20 team, featuring four players now on the main squad, took home the country’s first-ever title in the U-20 World Cup, so the youngest Japanese players do have some big-game experience. But this team will rely heavily on elders like captain Saki Kumagai to provide composure and maturity through the knockout rounds.
Alongside England, Japan is a near-lock to get out of Group D without much trouble, but a rematch in the Final with the U.S. appears unlikely. For one, if both teams win their group, they’ll be stuck on the same half of the bracket. But for two, this is far less of a sure thing than the previous two Japanese World Cup squads, and for them to go deep, they’ll need at least a few pleasant surprises to emerge from their pool of potentially talented youngsters.
Goalkeepers: Sakiko Ikeda, Ayaka Yamashita, Chika Hirao
Defenders: Aya Sameshima, Rumi Utsugi, Saki Kumagai, Shiori Miyake, Risa Shimizu, Nana Ichise, Asato Miyagawa, Moeka Minami
Midfielders: Mizuho Sakaguchi, Emi Nakajima, Yuka Momiki, Yui Hasegawa, Hina Sugita, Narumi Miura
Forwards: Yuika Sugasawa, Mana Iwabuchi, Kumi Yokoyama, Rikako Kobayashi, Saori Takarada, Jun Endo
Asako Takakura, a former player who’s held the position since 2016. She’s the first female manager in the team’s history.
Defender Saki Kumagai, as the seasoned captain and the heroine who scored the winning penalty back in 2011, is the face of this squad. But striker Kumi Yokoyama might have the most fascinating upside. The 25-year-old probable starter at forward has never gotten an opportunity this big before, but ever since a six-goal showing at the U-17 World Cup, she’s scored impressive goals whenever she’s been called upon. Knocking the ball in at a team-high rate of once per 2.4 caps, Yokoyama is the Japanese player most likely to make the highlight reel. This goal from 2010 shows off some of the best footwork you’ll ever see:
Befitting a club with so many young players, Japan’s main weakness is its inconsistency. Recent lower-stakes games leading up to the World Cup have seen the team give up too many goals and struggle to control the pace of play. They are not a physical team by any means, so they have to stop the opposition from scoring with intelligent anticipation and speed. When they’re on offense, Japan relies on quickness, patient passing, and good decision-making to break down the other team. Against a more talented opponent, this group could be absolutely stifled. But if the chemistry clicks and they have space and time to work with, Japan could create some beautiful goals.
June 10, 12 p.m.: Argentina vs. Japan at Parc des Princes
June 14, 9 a.m.: Japan vs. Scotland at Roazhon Park,
June 19, 3 p.m.: Japan vs. England at Allianz Riviera
All times Eastern