The WE League has received applications from 17 clubs to participate in its inaugural season, the Japan Football Association said on Saturday.

The announcement is a positive omen for Japan’s newly formed professional women’s soccer league, which is slated to kick off in September 2021. Officials expected applications from around 13 teams, and league chair Kikuko Okajima said the number of entries was indicative of strong interest in the league.

“I would have been happy with 12 or 13 applications,” Okajima said during a Saturday morning news conference. “I thought that the number might be low because of the impact of the coronavirus, but 17 is a big number for us. I’m very glad that we’ve received applications from clubs that haven’t previously operated a women’s team.”

Okajima revealed that eight applications were from J. League clubs, including three without a women’s team. Naming Sanfrecce Hiroshima as one of those three, she said the league’s evaluation committee wasn’t simply looking for clubs to clear requirements, but to exceed them.

“We’ve previously announced our standards for admission, but we also want to understand each team’s enthusiasm,” Okajima said. “How serious are they about joining the WE League, supporting their players, ensuring that women comprise at least half of the team’s staff and eventually hiring female coaches and managers? The extent to which they endorse the mission of our league will be a key point in deciding whether they’re admitted.”

Urawa Reds and Vegalta Sendai, two J1 clubs who participate in the Nadeshiko League, have announced their intent to join the WE League. J3 side AC Nagano Parceiro, which competes in the Nadeshiko League’s second division, has also been reported as one of the 17 applicants by local media.

Seven applicants are Nadeshiko League teams without J. League affiliates, and Okajima suggested that the remaining two could hail from regional leagues or potentially be founded as new clubs.

Although the WE League has previously announced that it will select between six and 10 teams for its first season, Okajima said on Saturday that she expected the final number to be eight or 10, saying that “personally, I think it would be cruel to the 11 other clubs if we started at six.”

The league’s founding members will be announced in October. Okajima, who will oversee the league from her current home in Baltimore, Maryland, said she would attend that announcement in person, adding that quarantine requirements upon her Oct. 1 arrival in Japan would determine whether that announcement takes place at the beginning or middle of the month.

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