Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Trio of young J. Leaguers could debut for Samurai Blue next month

by Dan Orlowitz

Three of the J. League’s youngest stars will likely receive Samurai Blue debuts and a trip to Brazil as head coach Hajime Moriyasu looks to accelerate their development.

Following their omissions from Japan’s squad for the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup, 17-year-old FC Tokyo midfielder Takefusa Kubo, 20-year-old Kashima Antlers midfielder Hiroki Abe, and 19-year-old Sanfrecce Hiroshima goalkeeper Keisuke Osako are expected to be given their first senior international call-ups ahead of next month’s international friendlies as well as the Copa America.

Moriyasu, who is in charge of both Japan’s senior national team and Olympic team, convinced the players to forgo the biannual youth competition in favor of “creating an environment for Japan’s treasures to develop,” according to Nikkan Sports.

The trio’s Copa participation could impact their clubs, which have consented to the call-ups. Kubo, who is widely expected to join a European side this summer after turning 18 in early June, has made four assists in nine appearances for first-division leader Tokyo.

Abe was handed Kashima’s No. 10 shirt after turning heads in last year’s successful Asian Champions League campaign, while Osako took over the starting role from Takuto Hayashi and recorded five straight clean sheets beginning in the J1’s second round.

Many of the Olympic hopefuls not selected for the U-20 team should make their way onto Japan’s U-21 squad for the Toulon Tournament, the annual invitational event in France which begins on June 1.

Big bucks for big names

This year’s bigger-than-usual slate of summer friendlies offers a glimpse at how strongly visiting European clubs are valued in Japan — and what organizers think the market can bear.

With different layouts at each stadium, the most consistent comparison can be made with the seats behind both goals.

Leading the way is, of course, the blockbuster July 23 friendly between Barcelona and Chelsea, for which fans sitting at either end of Saitama Stadium will have to pay a princely sum of ¥15,000 per ticket.

That sum drops to ¥10,000 four days later, when Barcelona will face Vissel Kobe at Noevir Stadium.

Despite Rakuten chairman Hiroshi Mikitani’s hopes that soccer-loving kids across Japan will be inspired by the Rakuten Cup, fans on Twitter and elsewhere have expressed displeasure at the lack of a children’s discount for either match featuring the Spanish titans.

That won’t be the case at the July 27 EuroJapan Cup between Yokohama F. Marinos and Manchester City, where tickets behind the Nissan Stadium goals will cost ¥5,000 for adults and ¥2,500 for children.

But the best deal for families can be found a week prior, when Kawasaki Frontale will host Chelsea at Nissan. The J. League announced late last month that general admission tickets behind the goals would cost ¥3,000, with students through high school paying only ¥1,500.

Fans west of the greater Tokyo area may not have to break the bank to watch European talent: according to Sports Hochi, Japan defender Hiroki Sakai’s Olympique Marseille is wrapping up plans to face Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka in late July.

J2 and J3 Roundup

With 12 rounds elapsed in the J. League’s second division, the unexpectedly undefeated leader is Mito Hollyhock, which has amassed 25 of a possible 36 points and holds a one-point advantage over Montedio Yamagata.

Mito, which earned its first conditional J1 Club License last year but failed to qualify for the playoffs, has shut down opponents with a defense that has allowed just four goals. Five of goalkeeper Kenya Matsui’s eight clean sheets have come on the road.

Rounding out the playoff positions are Omiya Ardija (24 points), Ventforet Kofu (20), Zweigen Kanazawa (19) and Kyoto Sanga (19).

In the J3, Giravanz Kitakyushu holds a narrow lead in goal difference over Kamatamare Sanuki, with both teams boasting a 5-2-1 record after eight rounds.

Japanese players feature in North American leagues

The Canadian Premier League opened its first season late last month, giving Canada its own top-tier domestic competition.

The seven-club league currently boasts two Japanese players: York 9 FC midfielder Wataru Murofushi, who was named Singapore’s 2018 Player of the Season in his professional debut at Albirex Niigata Singapore after the club won a domestic treble, and HFX Wanderers midfielder Kodai Lida, who has played at the amateur and semi-professional ranks in the U.S.

South of the border, defensive midfielder Hiroki Kurimoto made his first start for the USL’s Fresno FC in the team’s 4-2 win at Real Monarchs on Sunday. The 28-year-old Kurimoto joined the California club this winter after six seasons with Japanese fourth-division titan Honda FC, where he was named the JFL’s MVP in 2016 and ’17.