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The WE League announced its slate of 11 founding clubs on Thursday afternoon, with seven J. League-affiliated clubs intended to give the new professional women’s soccer league a solid foundation of support as it prepares for its inaugural season in the fall of 2021.

The announcement came as a surprise given that the league had initially declared an inaugural class of between six and 10 clubs. Seventeen clubs applied for membership by the July 31 deadline.

“All of the clubs were attractive options and the selection committee as well as the board of directors debated the number of clubs before deciding in the end to approve 11,” WE League Chair Kikuko Okajima said at the start of her news conference. “I am very glad to welcome 11 amazing clubs as friends who will help us build the WE League together.”

Leading the pack are reigning Nadeshiko League champion NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza as well as current league leader Urawa Reds Ladies. Other current J. League-affiliated clubs to make the cut were Albirex Niigata, JEF United Chiba and AC Parceiro Nagano, as well as Vegalta Sendai Ladies, who will come under full control of team sponsor Mynavi in February.

Two more J. League clubs will field new women’s teams in 2021, with Omiya Ardija absorbing Nadeshiko League second-division outfit Jumonji Ventus and Sanfrecce Hiroshima launching a brand-new team to complement its three-time J. League champion men’s side.

“We want to use our club’s values and management strategy to create a stage for female players to shine even brighter in Hiroshima,” Sanfrecce chairman Masataka Kubo said in a statement. “We intend to quickly establish an academy system so that our women’s team, just like our men’s team, can become known as one of Japan’s top homegrown clubs.”

Rounding out the group are perennial title contender INAC Kobe Leonessa, Nojima Stella Kanagawa Sagamihara and AS Elfen Saitama.

“I was excited about the call coming today and I was relieved to get the call around noon,” INAC chairman Takashi Yasumoto said. “I thought it would be eight or 10 clubs. I didn’t expect 11, and I hope we’ll all work together to make the WE League a success.”

The WE League’s first season, scheduled to open in the fall of 2021 and conclude in the spring of 2022, will consist of 22 home-and-away rounds. With an odd number of teams meaning that each club will have two "bye" weeks, the league intends for teams to treat those as service days, using the time to conduct activities related to promoting the league’s principles.

Asked how northern clubs — Niigata, Sendai and Nagano in particular — would handle potentially inclement winter weather, Okajima said those teams could play home games in neutral venues as part of the league’s strategy to promote itself in markets without established women’s teams.

The WE League’s selection committee, which met four times before formally approving the 11 clubs on Thursday, evaluated candidates’ enthusiasm for the league’s vision as well as their financial resources and ability to secure professional-tier facilities.

Among steps Okajima has urged clubs to take is the signing of foreign players, something she feels is necessary in order to raise the level of Nadeshiko Japan, the country’s 2011 World Cup-winning national team that has struggled in recent international cycles.

“By bringing in foreign players, we can give Japanese players the opportunity to play against (high-level opponents) domestically, which they’d normally only have when playing for the national team,” Okajima said. “Right now Japan is ranked 11th worldwide, and we could potentially support clubs financially if they want to sign players from stronger countries.”

Eventually there will be a requirement that women make up 50 percent the staff of each organization and install at least one woman on their board of directors, a goal that Okajima sees as a work in progress.

“Soccer in Japan has a long history as being a ‘men’s sport’ and that can’t be helped,” said Okajima. “The JFA started a women’s leadership program this month, and each prefectural football association has a woman on their board. We’re working on a variety of ways to get women into leadership positions.”

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