Soccer | From the Spot

Belgium-bound Samurai Blue goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt prepares to dive into deep end

by Dan Orlowitz

When goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt lines up between the posts on Saturday night, he will be wearing Vegalta Sendai’s crest for the last time.

The 27-year-old’s next stop will be Europe after agreeing on a full transfer to Belgium’s Sint-Truiden earlier this month.

While he’s far from the only Japan international to go overseas this summer, in a way he is one of the most important as the country grapples for solutions to its ever-thinning depth at the goalkeeper position.

“This is a chance for me as a goalkeeper to step up my game,” Schmidt said after Vegalta’s narrow 1-0 loss to Urawa Reds on Saturday at Saitama Stadium. “I think I’ll have to improve in every aspect if I want to defend the national team goal.”

At Sint-Truiden he’ll be able to adjust quickly thanks to the presence of Japanese teammates Yuta Koike, Wataru Endo and Kosuke Kinoshita. But Schmidt, whose father is American and mother is Japanese, does not expect an easy path to the starting role.

“I don’t think I’ll be starting from Day 1. I’ve got to learn a lot and I won’t have that much time,” said Schmidt, who at 197 cm is Japan’s tallest goalkeeper of the last 30 years — and possibly all time. “I’ve got to get used to the environment and the atmosphere, and learn to communicate with my teammates.”

The Illinois native, who moved to Sendai at the age of 2, earned his first appearance for Japan last November in a friendly against Venezuela and later participated in January’s Asian Cup.

With five caps in just eight months, Schmidt appears to have established himself as a strong contender to be Japan’s starter, ahead of Kashiwa Reysol’s Kosuke Nakamura, Gamba Osaka’s Masaaki Higashiguchi and Portimonense netminder Shuichi Gonda, when World Cup group stage qualifiers begin in September.

A bigger challenge will be permanently unseating Eiji Kawashima, who despite some inconsistent performances has remained Japan’s starting goalkeeper at three straight World Cups, more recently taking on the lion’s share of duties at the Asian Cup and Copa America.

“He’s got ability and presence,” Schmidt said of Kawashima. “He gives players (confidence), knowing he’s behind them.”

Kawashima’s participation in the 2018 World Cup, while surprising, was a testament to his endurance and leadership. The goalkeeper who came closest to dethroning him was Urawa’s Shusaku Nishikawa, who guarded the line for much of Vahid Halilhodzic’s tenure in charge of the Samurai Blue.

“(Schmidt) has the height and wingspan, and I think he’ll have a great career,” Nishikawa said on Saturday. “With experience he’s become a key part of the team and his reputation has earned him national team call-ups.

“He’s the kind of player who without that one save the team could draw or lose, and his performance is a part of why Sendai’s style is progressing.”

Nishikawa, who at 33 has not given up on his own national team ambitions, praised the recent crop of young Japanese goalkeepers and encouraged them to find experience beyond the J. League.

“(Urawa) playing in Asia gives us a different experience than (the J. League) and that’s an asset for us. Goalkeepers can grow if they get more experience playing in Asia and overseas,” Nishikawa said.

Like Kawashima, whose breakout performance at South Africa 2010 propelled him to a European career in Belgium, Scotland and France, Schmidt hopes that his arrival in the Belgian first division will be a first step toward greater accomplishments.

“I see this as a stepping-up point,” said Schmidt. “The Belgian first division isn’t my final goal. It’s about how far I can take myself, how much I can improve.”

His departure represents the most gratifying of setbacks for Vegalta, which for the second year in a row has seen one of its top players leave for Europe.

“Of course it hurts to lose a starter and especially one of national team caliber,” said Vegalta manager Susumu Watanabe. “Last year Takuma Nishimura joined CSKA Moscow and for this to happen a year later is something to be proud of as a club. It shows what we’re doing (to develop players) is right.”