By John Gunning
The Japan American football team has arrived in the United States hoping to follow in the footsteps of this nation’s soccer and rugby sides and achieve a signature win that will boost the sport’s popularity domestically, when they take on The Spring League at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas at 10am on Monday (JST).
As with the Brave Blossoms, who went into the 2015 Rugby World Cup opener against South Africa as massive underdogs, the gridiron team is up against an opponent that, on paper, is far stronger and more accomplished.
Fully one third of the 35-man roster released by The Spring League on February 28th has NFL experience.
Several are former draft picks with impressive resumes, like running Back Antonio Andrews, who had the second most all purpose yards in FBS history (behind only Barry Sanders) in 2012. The former Kentucky Mr. Football winner also played with the Tennessee Titans from 2014 to 2017.
The pay-to-play Spring League, which is essentially a showcase organization for players hoping to get a second (or first) shot with NFL, CFL or XFL teams, has put together a representative side for the March 1st showdown that is unarguably the strongest team Japan has ever faced.
Spending thousands of their own dollars just for the chance to play, and with their future livelihoods and careers at stake, the Spring League players will doubtless be highly motivated.
There is no shortage of drive on the Japanese side of the ball either.
According to LB Moses Wiseman, playing against such high-level opponents “just adds extra motivation since every player on this team at some point (even now) has dreams to compete at the highest level – which is the NFL.”
For Wiseman, he and his colleagues on defense have their work cut out for them as the late roster announcement and limited practice time makes things “definitely difficult because we have no idea what to prepare for…so we’ll be expecting a lot of in game adjustments.”
Adding to the difficultly is having to face former NFL starting QB Zach Mettenberger while being hamstrung by the specific rules in place for the game.
“We’ve been told no overload blitzes. Anyone lining up on the line of scrimmage has to be in a three-point stance. Basically linebackers can’t disguise blitzes.
Modified rules and limited practice time will be a challenge for both teams, but the Spring League has several high-level coaches helping them prepare.
Kevin Smith and Robert Ford both won three Super Bowls with Dallas and have taken charge of the running backs and defensive backs respectively for the game which will take place at the Cowboys practice facility.
Japan has its own footballing legends on the sideline as well.
Head coach Satoshi Fujita took over Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers and led the team to its first (and to date only) championships in 2000 and 2001, before accepting the top job at Fujitsu Frontiers and turning the perennial bridesmaids into the number one side in the world outside North America. Frontiers have won five of the last six Japan X Bowls and haven’t lost a regular season or post season game since Oct 2017.
For Fujita there is no great difference between coaching a club team and the national side, but he agreed with Wiseman that in game adjustments on Sunday (US time) will be crucial. Fujita also thinks it’s vital that his team match its opponents in physicality, toughness and football fundamentals in order to have any chance of winning.
According to WR Yoshihito Omi, Sunday is the “most important game [to date] for Japanese football.” As there have been no opportunities to take on former NFL players up to now “most Americans don’t know Japan has American football, and that there are a lot of good teams and players.” The IBM wideout thinks that a win would force those involved in football in the US to acknowledge the quality in Japan.
Many of the visitor’s players and coaches also believe that a first ever win over a major American team would provide confidence to kids playing the game and fuel dreams for future generations.
The Japan soccer team’s November 1997 win that ensured qualification for the World Cup helped turn that sport into arguably the country’s most popular, while the rugby side’s famous ‘Brighton Miracle’ win over South Africa in 2015 when ranked as 1,000-1 outsiders was probably the biggest upset in sporting history and has propelled Japanese rugby into the upper echelons globally.
Can the football team follow suit?
Japan famously owns a 100% win rate against clubs and national teams from every country in the world bar Canada and the United States.
The first two World Championships were won by Japan, and in the third it took America to double overtime in the final.
Yet the country still awaits its first win over significant US opposition.
Since getting blown out in the 2015 World Cup final by America though, the level of the XLeague has shot up, with over 50 Americans, most with NFL or FBS experience, plying their trade in Japan in 2019.
Most of the Japanese team is well used to playing alongside and against players that have been in NFL camps and who starred at schools like Michigan, UCLA and Florida.
On an individual level The Spring League team has deeper talent but collectively Japan will be well organized and up for the fight. A win, while difficult, isn’t impossible by any means.
For Chef de Mission Shinzo Yamada however the game has wider significance beyond the result.
A former XFL and NFL Europe standout, Yamada explained that “the main purpose of this game was to give opportunities and a pathway to our highest-level Japanese players. We wanted them to go against an opponent that they have never faced before. I am sure these experiences will elevate each player’s level tremendously. Ultimately these opportunities and pathway will become a dream for youngsters. North American Football has always been our role model and our teacher. We felt we needed to find other ways to learn and collaborate from them other than participating in the World Championships.”