I remember the 20 plus hour flight heading over to Japan for a trial with two teams: Albirex Niigata and Vegalta Sendai.
My former Florida State assistant coach met me at the airport, and we were off. I trained two or three days with JFA academy and then I took an express train ride to Sendai. With two duffle bags and a backpack, my journey in Japan was just starting. I had a trial for a three day trial in Sendai and I remember the first practice was so difficult for me. Many times I had no idea what anyone was saying. For some reason, all the Japanese words I attempted to learn while I was training back in the states were nowhere to be found.
My brief time in Vegalta I got my first introduction to Japanese food and I loved most of the foods. I had the chance to try a famous food in Sendai that is basically a cows tongue. I think it is safe to say that was my first and last time eating anything that involves a cow and its tongue. I fell in love with many other dishes in Japan that I would later stumble upon.
When it was time for training, I was a little nervous not knowing what to expect. Needless to say, soccer is soccer no matter where you are playing, so I got through practice. After practice some supporters were waiting for the team and a man noticed that I was American. He was not completely fluent in English but he wished me well with my trial. At the end of the three days, I was off to Niigata for another trial, this one for a week. Before I actually went to the first practice with Albirex Niigata, I had the opportunity to watch both the Albirex Niigata women’s and men’s first team play a double header at what they call “Big Swan” (where Albirex Niigata men play their home games). It was an incredible experience. To see soccer being played in another country along with all of the screaming fans, it’s a footballer’s dream. Little did I know that I would have many more experiences that would change my life in my first year as a professional.
Soon enough, I had my trial. The first practice seems like a distant blur now but before I knew it I found myself signing a contract with Albirex. As I experienced in Vegalta, my teammates were extremely nice and supportive of trying to help me get adjusted to Japanese culture. So, there I was officially signed with a team, living in my own apartment, and continuing on my journey. From the first session I had with Albirex, I loved the style of play and structure of training. First there was a standard warm up involving cones, speed drills, etc. Then, there was a technical portion of the warm up that involved different surfaces. After that, it was usually some variation of small sided games (which is every forwards favorite drill aside from finishing drills), followed by full field games. It was everything I was looking for in the off season. I wanted to play in a competitive environment whether that was in training or in games. One of the things that I liked about the trainings is that there was time set aside within training to do individual trainings. Extra shooting, long balls, and learning more Japanese from my teammates on the side couldn’t hurt.
Within no time, my debut with Niigata was here. In a little twist of irony, it was against Vegalta Sendai. I came in with 15 minutes left in the game and I remember thinking, “this is nice, I can play here”. After the game, Megu Kaminobe joked with me about a breakaway I could have had during the game. She told me, “Tifu don’t pass, you shoot”. I laughed and just smiled at her. I was beginning to learn some of the personalities on my team and really where they liked the ball to be played to them as well as their style of play. Saeki Aya is the joker on the team. She is always laughing and sending positive vibes to everyone. On the field though, she has a little bit of sass (mostly with the referee) and she is great with the ball (I call her the dribble Queen). Saito Yuri is the person I went to for Japanese translations. Anytime my teammates could not understand me, they would just call Yuri over to where I was to help me. She would write me a bunch of Japanese phrases and quiz me every day. It got to the point where everyone knew which word I was “supposed” to learn and would ask me. Maru is a pure forward, she is one of those players that will run all day and try new things. Her attitude about the game reminds me so much of a male player. When she plays you can tell that she really loves the game. Obara Yuria is our left back, one of those attacking left backs that have more creativity than most forwards and midfielders. Oishi Sayaka is what I call the “veteran joker”. She is a veteran in age but a kid at heart. But, when she plays she is very calm and efficient. Finally, Kaminonbe Megu, she is the heart and soul of Niigata. She is little in size but she has bite, with one of the best left foot’s in the world. These are just a few of my teammates and what I picked up on during my time. But, the most important thing I saw between them was that they were a family, they really love each other and it shows.
After another week of practice, my second game with Niigata would also be my first start and my first goal in Nadeshiko League play. This game was important. We needed the points and we were slipping into some of the bottom positions.
Yuria was dribbling down the right side; she got passed her defender, faked a pass down the line and played it to me outside the 18 yard box. I knew I had a little bit of space to turn and once I turned I shot with my left foot and it went into the lower left corner of the net. I was so excited, my teammates were so happy and for that short period of time we were in it. Unfortunately, Urawa Ladies came back and scored two good goals. So, the celebration was short lived.
After suffering another loss to Yunogo, I could feel the urgency this team had to win. We needed to win games. After a 2-2 draw against Iga and a 1-0 win against JEF United, we finished in eighth place in the Nadeshiko League, right above the relegation spot. At the time, I did not realize the full extent of this until after I saw how devastated my teammates were after the loss to Yunogo. It inspired me to want to win for them. They work part-time jobs and play the game for the love of it.
Not only did I learn from my teammates but I also had a wonderful experience with the fans and community in Niigata. When I first arrived in Niigata, I was curious about the food there and what was near my apartment. So, I walked a block or so and found a coffee shop. An older Japanese man, who spoke no English, started a conversation with me (mostly with my Iphone from Google translate). He was very intrigued by my journey and that I played for Albirex Niigata Ladies. He asked me to take a picture so that he could put it up in the restaurant. I tried to go to this restaurant regularly so that I could have my favorite pancake dessert and coffee from this restaurant.
Another restaurant I went to was White Ship. It was an Italian restaurant with the best seafood pasta and pizza. I went to the restaurant so much the owner/top chief gave me free dessert every time I came. My teammates would joke with me and ask me every day if I had already gone to White Ship that day. I fell in love with Japanese ramen noodles and a famous dish in Niigata called, “okonomiyaki”. Okonomiyaki is an egg based dish filled with different vegetables and meats mixed inside. It was probably one of my favorite things to eat.
Now, besides the food and wonderful environment probably the most memorable was playing in the Empress Cup. It is such a unique and historical event. All of the teams in Japan play for a title. It was such an amazing experience to see the excitement my teammates had and how much it meant to them. Practices were high intensity the weeks leading up to the Empress Cup. We were very well prepared for every game. We knew that we would have a good chance of winning the tournament. The first game was against a high school team in which we beat but they put up a good fight. The next game was against Beleza, a very technical and established club. We were ready for this, the quarterfinals of the Empress Cup. The first half was pretty even, as both sides traded possession. But, the second half, we were attacking and we got our first good chance. I was played a through ball behind the backline and the keeper fouled me outside of the box. Our stunning captain Megu took a free kick on the left side at the top of the box. I had no question she would score. Sure enough, she drilled a left footed and it was 1-0. After that, we were attacking them. An unknown player missed a couple of breakaways which made the game a little tougher (number 23, the American). When the whistle blew, we were moving on to the Empress Cup semi-final in Tokyo.
The atmosphere and media around us was great. It was fun to watch my teammates being given some of the attention that they deserved as I had established a bond with them from my time in Niigata. From the dinner the night before the game to pregame meal, we were excited. During warm-ups our fans were great. They have individual songs for all of the players on the team and that day, they were louder than ever before.
The whistle blew and we were off again. Like the quarterfinal game, the match was back and forth. Until, our captain caught a rebound and chipped the ball over the keeper’s head into the right corner. We held Yunogo off for the rest of the half and it was done. We were going to the finals.
We were going to play INAC Kobe, who have dominated the Nadeshiko League for a couple of years. We were the underdog and we were okay with that. We went into that game confident and ready, again we were prepared. No motivational speeches were necessary because we knew how much it meant, my teammates more so than I. Even though, I probably wouldn’t have understood the pregame speech anyway, I knew what it meant to them.
When the time came for the whistle to blow, a thousand fans from Niigata were there cheering us on, and our coaches were right there with us. Throughout the first 20 to 30 minutes of the game, there was possession on both sides and equal shots on goal but nothing dangerous on from either side. But, in the 42nd minute we got through. The INAC defenders were possessing the ball in the back line and I noticed the center back took a bad first touch backward. I knew I could get to the ball and then the defender fell so I was now in a 1v1 situation with the last defender. I took a couple more dribbles and then cut the ball right then left and the only thing I could do at that point was toe-poke the ball, somehow it went in. I remember thinking, “we got this”. The 45th minute, the whistle blew for halftime. Into the locker room, the atmosphere was tense but there was also a calm to it as well. We had to hold on for 45 minutes and we could be champions.
The whistle blows the second half; we were a little on edge. Both teams traded possession and still battling it out. In the 65th minute, INAC came back on a goal from a free kick on the side of the ball. The second half ended, still 1-1. Now it was time for two overtime periods.
In the 2nd minute of overtime INAC got a corner on the right side and in a scramble, they went ahead 2-1 on a finish inside the six-yard box. From then on it was a battle, back and forth, shots and hard hits on the field. They obviously wanted to get another goal to seal the game off and we were fighting to keep the game alive. Near the 55th minute we made substitutions on the wing. Megu had a beautiful long distance shot that hit the crossbar. We were pushing to score. In the 111th minute Megu fought for the ball in the middle of the field, she switched it to Hirai Sakina on the left hand side near the 18 yard box. She took a great first touch with her left foot down the line and then took her second touch with her right foot and passed the ball to me in the middle of the 18-yard box. I saw the defender over commit to the ball so I decided to let the ball run across my body and I struck it with the inside of my laces. From there, I saw the ball hit the net. I was so happy. I remember thinking, “this team deserves it, and we are still in this”. My teammates all ran up to me and we were all together as one making the little town of Niigata proud. The overtime period ended and we were on our way to a penalty kick shoot out.
It was tense from the very beginning, at the end INAC pulled through and beat us 4-3 on penalty kicks. Through the crying and disappointment at the end of the game, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my professional career. Up until that point I had never been so emotionally attached to a team and a city nor had I appeared in a final as a professional.
The fans supported us throughout my entire time in Niigata. I think that because Niigata is such a small town, it makes it even more special and important to everyone involved. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to both represent Niigata and American style of play. I have learned a lot about Japanese culture and made friends that I still talk to today. A year later, when I returned to play in Niigata, I returned to the same shop with the old man, and reunited with a team that once stole the heart of many fans in a little town called Niigata.