The first sixteen minutes of the 2015 World Cup Final effectively brought about the end of an era. Japan had won the 2011 World Cup, but by the time Carli Lloyd scored the third of her three goals, it was clear that Japan was not going to defend its crown. The Nadeshiko followed that up by failing to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, finishing four points off of second place China in the qualifying tournament, and missing out on a chance to improve upon their silver medal finish in 2012. Now Japan arrives in France with a very different team from that which played in the last World Cup, and perhaps an eye toward the future.
This new Japan is about three years younger on average than the 2015 team, with an average age of roughly 24 years. Players long linked with success, like Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama, and Yuki Ogimi are all gone, replaced with a new wave of youth and potential. The team is also significantly more domestic, carrying just two players, Rumi Utsugi and Saki Kumagai, who play for clubs outside of Japan, down from six in 2015. This is perhaps not a team that is a favorite to win the tournament, but I’d be afraid of this crop of players in 2023.
How They’ve Fared
This is Japan’s eighth World Cup, having never missed one. They won it in 2011.
How They Qualified
Japan finished second in Group B of the 2018 AFC Asian Cup, which qualified them for the World Cup, even before they advanced to the final, beating Thailand and then Australia to win the competition.
Player You Know
Saki Kumagai moved abroad at the age of 20, initially to Frankfurt in Germany’s Bundesliga, where she played for two seasons. Since then, she’s played 119 times for Lyon, winning six league titles, five domestic cups, and four Champions Leagues. Though she’s scored 22 times for her club, you’re unlikely to see her on the score sheet in France, as she’s never scored for her country. She’s not flashy, and you don’t often notice that she’s there, but the 28 year old is adept at finding open space and then finding the next open player, and she’s vital to Japan’s success.
Player You’ll Know Soon
Just 22 years old, Yui Hasegawa is on the verge of stardom. Despite her age, she’s got a lot of experience, as she’s played in two U-17 World Cups (2012 and 2014), and she’s already appeared over 100 times for her Japanese club team, Nippon TV Beleza. In her 35 caps she’s displayed flair, great ball control, and despite her small stature (5’2), she’s shown that she’s quite good at holding off defenders. She’s at her best when taking on defenders; just ask Brazil.
THE DISRESPECT— The Equalizer (@EqualizerSoccer) March 2, 2019
Yui Hasegawa finishes Japan's third goal. pic.twitter.com/GV4ZxLCh7J
World Cup Outlook
Japan’s 2019 has been a bit of a roller coaster. They have just one win in six matches this year, a 3-1 win over Brazil in the SheBelieves Cup in March, and while the draws against the US and Germany aren’t bad at all, there is also a 3-0 loss to England and a 3-1 loss to France. With this young team, Japan should still advance to the knockout stage even if they lose to England again, but I think the quarterfinals is about as far as we can expect them to go.