Professional women’s soccer arrived in Tokyo on Sunday afternoon as Yuzuho Shiokoshi’s late goal drove Urawa Reds to a 2-1 win over Tokyo Verdy Beleza in both teams’ WE League season opener at Ajinomoto Field Nishigaoka.

The marquee matchup between Beleza, the most successful women’s team in Japan with 17 first-division titles, and reigning first-division champion Urawa was a suitable curtain-raiser in the capital for the WE League, which is aiming to raise the level of the women’s game in Japan.

“Any match against Beleza is a big occasion,” Urawa manager Naoki Kusunose said. “More than winning or losing, I thought it was really a good game. Both sides fought until the end. I think it was a good match to start the season.”

Referee Yoshimi Yamashita who earlier this year became the first woman to officiate a J. League match, oversaw fierce competition for the ball in the midfield. Both sides attacked early and often, with Tokyo goalkeeper Momoko Tanaka and her Urawa counterpart, Sakiko Ikeda, maintaining clean sheets in the first half hour.

A breakaway Verdy attack changed that in the 33rd minute when strikers Riko Ueki and Rikako Kobayashi’s back-and-forth exchange through the Urawa defense ended with Ueki slamming home from near the far post.

“I’m happy I scored, but not winning is what matters most for the team, so the most I can do is think about what to learn from today’s loss ahead of our next game,” Ueki said.

“Today was the first page of this (WE League) history, and it’s disappointing that we lost, but we have a whole season ahead of us. I want to stay positive and do my best next weekend.”

WE League Chairperson Kikuko Okajima addresses fans before Sunday's match. | WE LEAGUE
WE League Chairperson Kikuko Okajima addresses fans before Sunday’s match. | WE LEAGUE

Reds talisman Yuika Sugasawa, who came on as a halftime substitute, struck back for the visitors in the 49th minute when she slid in to drive a superb cross from Kozue Ando into the back of the net.

“Of course the result is important, and so is our ability to have fun on the pitch, but in order to create a good environment for women’s soccer in Japan we have to play in a way that the fans will enjoy,” Sugasawa said.

Urged forward by fans behind the home goal — cheering is still prohibited at Japanese sporting events during the pandemic, while drumming and clapping are permitted — Beleza hunted for a game-winner.

Instead the crucial goal came in the 88th minute from Shiokoshi, who expertly controlled the ball near the edge of the penalty area before turning and launching a right-footed rocket under the crossbar.

“I think we played well in the first half but we still fell behind,” Shiokoshi said. “When Yuika (Sugasawa) scored in the second half it felt like we had a chance, and when the ball fell to me I took my best shot.”

WE League Chairperson Kikuko Okajima greeted a crowd of 2,427 fans; Japan Football Association president Kozo Tashima and other dignitaries were also in attendance.

“I think our big challenge is going to be getting fans to keep coming,” Okajima said after the match. “People will come to the home openers, but each club has to think about how to attract fans after that.

“We want to create new fans beyond each team’s core supporters. We want people who aren’t necessarily familiar with soccer to be able to enjoy the game.”

In Sunday’s earlier kickoff, INAC Kobe Leonessa beat Omiya Ardija Ventus 5-0, with Megumi Takase scoring the WE League’s historic first goal just four minutes into the action at Noevir Stadium. The former Nadeshiko Japan forward and 17-year-old teammate Maika Hamano both recorded braces.

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