When newly minted FC Cincinnati striker Yuya Kubo makes his MLS debut in March, few will be more eager to welcome him than Tsubasa Endoh.
The Toronto FC midfielder, who in 2016 became the first Japanese player selected in the MLS SuperDraft, told From the Spot earlier this month he hopes the presence of the former Samurai Blue player will help bolster the league’s exposure in Japan.
“It’s huge for me. For me and for (MLS),” Endoh said. “Because I’m the only Japanese player right now. We just don’t get enough attention.
“From the Japanese perspective, when you play soccer you play in the J. League and then the next step is Europe. That’s the step they think you should make. In their head, MLS isn’t an option, because they don’t know the level of the league.”
Endoh’s unique path began in elementary school, when he was selected to the inaugural class of JFA Academy Fukushima, a six-year residential program run by the Japan Football Association.
After impressing University of Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski at a summer camp and receiving a scholarship offer, Endoh focused on preparing for U.S. college admissions exams. Those studies were interrupted just before the start of his senior year, when he was among the students evacuated from the JFA’s J-Village facility following the earthquake and tsunami that rocked the Tohoku region and nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011.
“I feel like it made me realize that I’m so thankful to be alive right now, because we are so close to the ocean and I feel like we could have been hit by a tsunami,” Endoh said.
“That’s where we grew up for five years. It’s hard to see all those buildings collapse, somewhere we used to hang out, just gone.”
After graduating following the academy’s relocation to Shizuoka Prefecture, Endoh made his way to Maryland, where he overcame his struggles with English and integrated into Maryland’s squad with the help of his Terrapin teammates.
“Every time my teammates were there for me,” Endoh said. “But at the same time, you need to have a personality to get along with your teammates, and you need to make an effort to speak English at the end of the day. I think that’s what I did, and it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake, you just keep going. You keep making mistakes, that’s how you learn.”
Forced to adjust his playing style from JFA Academy’s pass-heavy attack to the physical soccer of the NCAA, Endoh contributed to four straight conference titles for Maryland, as well as a national semifinal appearance in 2012 and runner-up finish in 2013.
In the middle of what he describes as some of the best play of his career, Endoh began to attract attention from MLS clubs — including 2013 MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City, who showed a strong interest in the Japanese midfielder ahead of the SuperDraft.
But as he awaited their 11th overall pick, Endoh was surprised to find himself chosen ninth by Toronto, which in 2015 had reached the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in club history.
“When (MLS Commissioner) Don (Garber) said, ‘this year’s combine MVP,’ I was like ‘Oh, that’s me,’ but I wasn’t ready at all,” Endoh said. “I was just so happy that I was drafted. Before the combine I didn’t think I was going to get drafted in the first two rounds.
“I didn’t know what to expect from Canada, but then once you get there everyone’s so polite. Their personality is close to Japanese personalities,” he continued. “The stadium is amazing. Everyone’s professional. It’s a dream club to play for, I couldn’t ask for a better club.”
Endoh found himself on an international squad with players from six other countries, including U.S. star Michael Bradley (“A true professional. He leads by example”) and Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco.
But after a promising 2016 rookie season that included two goals from 21 appearances, Endoh struggled to find minutes in a stacked roster that would go on to win the treble in 2017. After Toronto declined to pick up his option for 2018 and a month-long trial in Belgium didn’t result in an offer, he returned to Toronto’s reserve team — in the second-division USL — eager to regain his footing.
“I was just trying to enjoy the moment when I signed to the second team,” Endoh said. “I didn’t think about being back on the first team. I wanted to have fun, I wanted to play. There was no pressure. (I thought) ‘If I play well, everyone’s going to see me.’ And that’s what I did.”
Endoh earned a new first-team contract for 2019, although he would not step on an MLS pitch until late June. But for the rest of the season he was a key figure in an underrated Toronto side that surpassed expectations and beat defending champions Atlanta United to reach the MLS Cup final, where it lost to Seattle in a repeat of the 2016 climax.
“Everyone thought ‘okay, he’s done now. Even though he’s with the first team, he didn’t get a single minute.’ I hear all the noise, but it didn’t bother me at all,” Endoh said. “I was doing what I had to do every single game.
“It’s easy to be demotivated and say ‘I’m not going to work hard because I’m not going to play.’ There’s so many players like that, and I get it because it’s so hard mentally. I dealt with that in 2017 and I know how to cope with it.”
Despite representing Japan at the U-15 through U-17 levels, Endoh never received a national team callup after coming to the United States — much to his chagrin.
“(The JFA) don’t know what it’s like in MLS. It seems like they don’t care,” he said. “It’s frustrating that I got drafted and was playing but (the JFA) didn’t care at the moment. And still, after four years. I’m not on the radar, and that’s kind of frustrating.”
But with Endoh’s spot in Toronto’s first team assured for 2020, Kubo becoming the first Japanese player to sign an MLS designated player contract and Kawasaki Frontale academy product Ryo Shimazaki going to the Columbus Crew in the 2020 SuperDraft’s third round, it could be a breakthrough year for Japanese talent playing in a league better known in Japan for signing aging superstars like David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“That’s something Japanese media will care about. They know (Kubo’s) playing for MLS and they’ll report that I’m playing in MLS as well,” Endoh said. “It will help me and help the league and get us attention from Japan.”