Keisuke Honda sets his sights on America

AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda plans to open an academy in the United States in 2016 as part of his expanding business interests.

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In one of the few quiet moments in his whirlwind life, Keisuke Honda planned a trip to southern California last month.

There were countless other ways for the 29-year-old to spend a few days off from his obligations at AC Milan. Honda is a massive star in his native Japan and a recognizable figure across Asia. Those are the trappings associated with his successes for club and country over the past few years.

Instead of following one of those pursuits, Honda chose to hold a clinic at the StubHub Center instead. He hosted 100 local children in Carson, Calif. and introduced them to the methods espoused in one of his 50 soccer schools in Japan.

The clinic served as the first step in a plan to establish a foothold in the United States moving forward and expand his sprawling business interests to a third continent. These are the paths forged at the end of a career, but Honda said he wanted to get started as quickly as possible.

“I have limits, right? I don’t want to waste the time,” Honda told FOX Soccer recently in an exclusive interview. “I do what I can now.”

HEAR US OUT

Honda credits most of his success to his desire to take his fate into his own hands. He insists his trademark abilities — the ability to pick a pass or place a free kick in the correct spot — emerged through hours of hard work, not through natural gifts. Those countless repetitions are the reason why he rose through the youth ranks in Osaka, took his first steps with Nagoya Grampus and transitioned into his role as a creative hub for Japan and CSKA Moscow, he explains.

“I was not talented,” Honda said. “There were many good players around me when I was young. I thought I needed to train independently. What I did, I created a lot of training for myself.”

At the peak of his powers, Honda paused for a moment and wondered how to push himself forward off the field. Several multinational corporations offered him the usual endorsement deals, but Honda wanted to expand his horizons further. He established his own company, Honda Estilo Ltd., and pursued opportunities beyond the scope of most players.

Those ventures leveraged his knowledge of soccer and his profile within the sport. The former Asian Cup winner opened three separate youth academies in Japan and spent considerable time cultivating their growth over the past few years. He and his partners unveiled a $4 million training complex in suburban Tokyo last month. His company even acquired Austrian third-division side SV Horn last June in a bid to create a pipeline to Europe for Asian players and signed a couple of Japanese players over the past few months to reinforce the point.

Honda envisions the United States as a logical next step in his plan. He hopes to establish his soccer academy in the U.S. this year. It is a particularly competitive arena with different clubs and companies catering to every demographic and market, but Honda believes his aspirational approach fits neatly within the spectrum.

Honda spekas with several children at the opening of a $4 million complex in suburban Tokyo last month.

“Why do I want to educate kids in the United States? Well, I believe the kids in the United States have a lot of potential, talent-wise,” Honda said. “I wasn’t talented when I was young. I had huge dreams to play for AC Milan and for big clubs in the world when I was young. I believe that most children can reach their goals if they train with our philosophy, with our training programs.”

Those objectives run parallel to his playing career and his time with AC Milan. Honda moved from CSKA Moscow to Milan in January of 2014, but he strained to meet the rather considerable expectations surrounding his move. The creative playmaker improved last season even as he spent time featuring on the right, but he rotated in and out of the lineup under Sinisa Mihajlovic during the first half of this season.

After spending most of his life hoping for a move to one of Europe’s biggest sides, Honda grapples with the fallout of those struggles. He expresses his displeasure with the situation from time to time — including a recent interview with Kyodo News about the tumult at the club over the past couple of years — and yet harbors hopes of a revival.

“Since I came here, we had a very difficult moment,” Honda said before the Serie A campaign returned from the Christmas break. “We didn’t make good results over the past two years. I know the supporters are not happy with us. But I still won’t give up. I’m looking to make good results in the near future. Especially in this new year, we have a new trainer [Mihajlovic]. I believe we can make good results.”

Whether Honda sticks around for the long-term remains an open question. Honda is under contract with Milan through next summer, but he is often linked with a move away from the San Siro. Several English clubs often pop up as potential destinations, though Honda says he hopes to see out his contract in Milan and survey the scene next summer.

INSIDE MLS BLOG

Those nascent American links make MLS a potentially attractive destination, too. The thought crosses Honda’s mind from time to time, but his focus remains firmly on Milan — he started and played 90 minutes in the 2-0 victory over Fiorentina on Sunday — and his immediate commitments instead.

“I’m very interested in MLS, even as a player, but I don’t know if I will play or not,” Honda said. “I would say that MLS is a developing soccer league in the world. There are a lot of famous players coming to MLS.”

Even if Honda does not follow suit, he is focused on America nevertheless. There are goals within sight in the years ahead. That first clinic is only the initial step in expansive plans for the future.

“Let’s say that I have a lot of big dreams in the United States in the future,” Honda said. “We have a good team. We still can’t say all of them. I want to surprise you in the future. Keep your eyes open.”

It is advice worth taking as Honda dashes off to his next engagement. There is little time for respite. There is another commitment, another objective looming. His attention, as it is on the field, inevitably drifts two or three steps ahead.