Like many aspiring footballers in Japan, Tsubasa Endoh dreamed of one day playing soccer abroad as a youngster. Encouraged to take up the sport by his father, the Tokyo-native displayed promise from a young age and, at 11, became part of the Japan Football Association Academy, an elite system set up to develop players with potential. After four years in Fukushima, he was then presented with the opportunity to go overseas as part of the program.
“Most opted for places such as Germany and Spain, as they have long footballing traditions,” says Endoh. “The important thing for me, however, was to go to an English-speaking country. I started learning the language when I was around 4 because my mom pushed me into it. I hated studying, but as I got older, I really wanted to speak it well. Even without soccer, I would have lived abroad for that reason. England was my first choice but that was difficult. I then heard about a summer camp in the United States with the possibility of studying there in the future and that seemed like a great option.”
The then-16-year-old started out at camp in Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Things didn’t go as well as he hoped, though, so he decided to try his luck at the University of Maryland where he met Sasho Cirovski. The Macedonian-Canadian coach was impressed with Endoh’s footballing ability, but felt his English wasn’t good enough. Unperturbed, the youngster returned to Japan, worked on his language skills and within two years completed the eligibility requirements for Maryland.
“I arrived in the spring semester of 2012, two weeks earlier than everyone else,” recalls Endoh. “I used that time to figure things out. I struggled with the food, got homesick and regularly called my mom. The biggest difficulty in those early months was not being able to express myself to people. It’s frustrating knowing what you want to say but not having the vocabulary to get your point across.”
It took some time but, he says, eventually, things did get easier.
“I realized I had to work harder. My teammates and coaches helped me but it was up to me to change the situation,” he recalls. “I picked up the language relatively quickly and everything felt different after that. When you live abroad, the mental aspect is vital. It was a relief to be able to speak properly. That said, I appreciate those early days in America. Overcoming obstacles made me stronger and I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had without that time.”
The Japanese soccer player grew to love life on campus and was particularly impressed by the quality of the facilities, which were bigger and better than anything he’d seen in Japan. Training was different, too. It was more focused on the individual, with around 20 people in the sessions as opposed to the more than 200 he’d experienced back home.
Away from the university Endoh was finding Maryland a comfortable place to live, and found he had no desire to leave the United States. Then came an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“The Major League Soccer SuperDraft takes place annually and I was there (in Baltimore, Maryland) in 2016 hoping to be chosen. I’d played well and in my last year at university, training with Kansas City, so I knew people would recognize me,” says Endoh. “I was confident I’d get picked, but it still came as a surprise to hear my name called out ninth.”
Endoh’s mother had also gone to the event to surprise him, and was sitting in the audience.
“Then I had to give a speech. That didn’t go well,” Endoh recalls with a laugh. “With so many things going on in my head, it took me some time to register the fact that I was signing for Toronto FC, which meant moving to a new country.”
Having settled in the United States, Endoh admits that he wasn’t initially over-enthused about the prospect of relocating to Canada.
“I didn’t know what to expect — many people told me Toronto was a great city, but I had to see it with my own eyes,” he says. “Honestly speaking, my expectations weren’t high. Soon after arriving, though, I realized how special it is. It must be one of the best cities in the world to live. There’s always something to do and the people are so kind. It has a strong sporting identity and locals are quick to get behind their team. You can feel the love.”
Endoh settled in quickly with Toronto FC, helping the side to a 2-0 victory over New York Red Bulls on his debut. Featuring alongside Sebastian Giovinco, whom he describes as the best he’s played with, he enjoyed his first year, during which he had the opportunity to go up against two of his heroes: Bastian Schweinsteiger and Frank Lampard.
His second season, though, didn’t go so well. Despite the team winning a treble, he made just four appearances. His option for the 2018 campaign was then denied by the club, leaving him unemployed.
“I went on trial at a second division side in Belgium, but it didn’t work out,” he says. “I returned to Canada and was without a club for two months. That was probably the hardest time of my life.”
During that time, Endoh describes going to the gym in the morning and working with a personal trainer in the afternoon. “It felt like I was doing it for nothing,” he recalls. “Eventually, though, I was given a lifeline by the Toronto second team.”
It was a step down for the attacking midfielder, but he met the challenge face-on, scoring eight goals in 14 games. The return to form attracted the attention of Toronto’s first team coaches, who offered him a one-year contract for the 2019 season.
After being left out for the first 16 games, Endoh came back with a bang, scoring the fastest goal in the club’s history against Atlanta United FC. It was his first touch in Major League Soccer for almost two years.
“I was the happiest kid in the world,” he says, smiling. “I’d knuckled down, worked hard and that was the reward.”
Of going to another country to follow dreams, he says, “When you get a chance, you’ve got to take it,” pointing out that it can help represent Japanese sportspeople.
“When playing abroad, you want to show what Japanese players can do. There’s a perception that we’re disciplined and good-mannered,” he says. “Of course, my aim isn’t to contradict that stereotype, but I want to show there’s more to us than that. As I play more, hopefully I can do that.”