It may not have been the J. League debut he expected, but Urawa Reds defender Thomas Deng made the most of it on July 4 with an impressive full appearance in the team’s 0-0 draw against Yokohama F. Marinos.

Playing in an empty stadium due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the Australia international and Olympic candidate helped shut down a Marinos side that romped to the first-division title last season on the back of a fearsome, multilayered attack.

“It was great to make my debut against the former champions,” Deng said after the match. “They’re a very quality side. For me tonight was quite difficult at certain times, but me and my teammates communicated very well and we were able to shut them down at important times.”

The former Melbourne Victory player, who only arrived in Japan in February shortly before the season kicked off, said the four-month shutdown gave him a chance to find his way in an Urawa squad in the midst of transition and featuring several new names in the starting lineup.

“For me it was quite difficult to get to know my teammates and also learning the tactics and what my role for the team was,” Deng said of his early days in Japan. “Having these last four months has been good for me (in order) to really understand what I need to do and what my teammates require from me.”

It came as a happy coincidence that Deng’s first appearance in Japan came against Ange Postecoglou, the Australian manager of Marinos whose success last season has put the J. League on the map “Down Under” in a way not seen since striker Joshua Kennedy won the league with Nagoya Grampus in 2010.

“It was great to play against Ange Postecoglou, another Australian coach I’ve known for a long time and someone I look up to,” said Deng. “It was good to see him again.”

After Saturday’s draw, the Nairobi-born center back promised that his improvement at Urawa would be measured in years, not just months, indicating that he considers Japan a potential long-term home.

“I’ve only been here for a few months, but I’m going to get better and better,” Deng said. “I’m sure I’m going to improve a lot in the next few years, and I feel like I can achieve something here.”

Schedule crunch for ACL teams

The J. League on Friday announced the rescheduling of 12 fixtures involving clubs in the Asian Champions League to midweek dates in August, September and November, further indicating that matches in 30th and 31st round, which take place around the time of the ACL semifinals and final, could also be moved.

The announcement came one day after the Asian Football Confederation released its revised schedule for the ACL, which has been suspended since March.

The new schedule will see teams in the East Zone, including Japan’s three representatives, finish out the group stage, as well as the round of 16, at a centralized location in late October and early November.

The quarterfinals and semifinals would be compressed to single-legged stages at a centralized venue in late November, with the final taking place on Dec. 5.

For Yokohama F. Marinos, FC Tokyo and Vissel Kobe, a run to the ACL final would clash with six J1 games, as well as a potential Levain Cup final.

That’s to say nothing of a potential Club World Cup appearance, which could clash with the conclusion of the J1 season on Dec. 19 as well as the Dec. 28 Emperor’s Cup semifinals and Jan. 1 final.

In addition to revising the J1 schedule, the J. League will also need to update its coronavirus-related protocols to accommodate players and coaches traveling overseas.

New transfer window opened

In another unusual addition to an already unusual season, the J. League will add a third transfer window that will run for nearly the entire month of October.

The league’s first transfer window, which ran from Jan. 3-March 27, was largely wasted due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Japan that caused the league to suspend activities from Feb. 25.

The new third window, which was established through individual consultation between the J. League and FIFA, will run Oct. 2-30 as a way to make up for the curtailed spring window.

The traditional summer transfer period, originally scheduled from July 17-Aug. 14, has been pushed back to July 31-Aug. 28.

Okajima named WE League Chair

The Japan Football Association on Thursday announced former Japan international and women’s soccer trailblazer Kikuko Okajima as the first chair of the WE League.

Okajima, who has lived in Baltimore since 1991 through her work in the banking industry, played for FC Jinnan, Japan’s first-ever women’s club, in 1972. She later joined the executive committee of the Japan Women’s Football Federation and served as executive secretary during her playing career, which concluded in 1989.

“Through her experience, knowledge, and diversified perspective, we hope to see her guide the WE League to promote, develop, and strengthen women’s football in Japan more than ever before, and lead the league to realize a society where women can truly thrive,” said JFA President Kozo Tashima in a statement.

According to a biography provided by the JFA, Okajima has also served as chair of the Maryland-Kanagawa Sister State Committee and one sat on the Women’s Board of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“As a person who has experienced the dawn of women’s football in Japan, I am delighted to be a part of the inauguration of the first women’s professional football league in Japan,” Okajima said in a statement.

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