Soccer bedfellow: USA, Japan – Part 2

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Reversing the decline

While 2005’s was perhaps the most exciting title finish ever, there have since been a few others that have come close. In fact, so exciting have most of the races been since that a few conspiracy theorists have wondered whether these amazing climaxes are not actually too good to be true – that they’re manufactured by the league. The doubters may be out again for the 2011 season, with only two points separating the league’s top three going into this weekend’s final round.

Cast off from Major League Soccer, former Arsenal star Freddie Ljundberg is a big-name signing for the J. League. (Photo Credit: Clive Mason/Getty Images)

When it comes to entertainment, Japan may be hard to beat but it lags behind the MLS when it comes to star power, according to Ghotbi. While America has Beckham, Henry and others, the recent signing of Freddie Ljungberg by Shimizu S-Pulse was the first big-name to arrive in Japan in recent years.

“Signing international players with experience and qualities that the likes of Beckham and Henry has helped build a global name and image (for MLS),” said Ghotbi. “Also the English language has given the entire world a bigger access to MLS and the American game.”

What the J. League does do well is develop its own talent. Many of the stars who are now thrilling fans at some of the biggest clubs in Europe owe some of their success to a comprehensive youth development system that is the best in Asia – one of the best to be found anywhere. The country is divided into 47 prefectures and Tokyo, with the JFA working with each local federation to help identify the best young players and make sure they end up at one of nine regional training centers. The best of each can find their way to a national elite academy. It is this integrated system that is at the root of Japan’s increasing success.

“The JFA has a strong connection with the state and local federations, said Byer. “The United States has many different associations for youth soccer that do not fit under the control of US Soccer. There is also the NSCAA Coaches Association which is a separate entity to US Soccer.”

Keisuke Honda’s performances for Japan and CSKA Moscow of the Russian league make him the most high profile of growing group of Japanese players at top-level European club. (Photo credit: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Under-12 and high school teams fight it in state competitions, with the best going to Tokyo. They play in front of huge crowds in games that are broadcast live on national television. It’s a platform for players like Keisuke Honda to breakthrough no the national stage. Honda, one of the standouts of the South African World Cup, is now at CSKA Moscow and is just one of growing list of Japanese players in Europe. The list includes Yuto Nagatomo at Inter Milan, Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund, Atsuto Uchida at Schalke 04 and teenage prodigies Takashi Usami at Bayern Munich and Ryo Miyaichi at Arsenal.

Augmenting the talent drain

The best players go overseas, but the excellent youth development system is producing talent good enough to fill the gaps. The J. League is now at a level where it can give these youngsters the challenge they need to improve. They can then quickly replace the departed stars before catching the eyes of the big boys to the west, before the cycle continues. It is the opposite to the English Premier League which not only has more foreign players than domestic but also doesn’t send its players overseas for experience and growth, which in turn gives fewer opportunities for young players coming through.

In Japan, players are often with the club from a very young age, as every team in J1 and J2 must have Under-12,15 and 18 teams (though many having more).

“A big difference between Japanese and American soccer is the J. League youth programs are a path into the professional league,” said Byer. “They train on a daily basis and play many competitive games. There is no ‘on’ or ‘off’ season in Japan. In the United States the pathway to the MLS is through college, which is a seasonal sport running between September and the end of November, if you make the playoffs then maybe December. So the MLS clubs need to have a better development program that is more competitive.”

Ghotbi agrees with Byer that this is an issue in which the Americans can learn from the Japanese.

“The overall organization, infrastructure, training facilities and youth department is superior in Japan. Japan is the size of California and has almost half the population of USA. The shorter distances make the organization and scouting simpler. The relegation system has created more competitive leagues and as each club is owned and operated by separate entities and backed by major corporations, they have financial stability.”

What Japan has yet to do however is to follow America in its current trend of building soccer-specific stadiums, a strategy that became a priority when the MLS went through its own contraction period in the `90s. In Japan, a majority of arenas still contain running tracks and are owned by cities, not clubs. This holds the teams back.

When it comes to marketing, perhaps the Japanese could learn a few things from their American cousins who have to operate in a much more difficult sporting environment.

“The American business model will make the game more profitable in the USA,” said Ghotbi. “Americans have always been wonderful at marketing their products, and the MLS has not been any different. Developing soccer specific stadiums bringing the fans closer to the game has created a very European atmosphere at many of the venues.”

Overall though, the two nations, separated by thousands of miles, language and culture and whatever else you care to mention are developing their own atmospheres and their own way of doing things. So much so that if the pair did manage to meet at a FIFA dinner party, you may find a few established European league keeping their ears open, hoping to learning something.