PDP girls learn on and off the field during Japan trip
For all but the very select few of us, playing soccer will not turn into a career, but rather be used as a positive passion that has the ability to teach one important life lessons as a youth.
The pursuit of high-level learned activities, be it music-playing, academics, or athletics has inherent value, and the ability to instill vital qualities that can make one successful later in life.
It is with this mindset that NorCal Premier Soccer undertook a recent trip to Japan, sending 18 girls from its prestigious Player Development Program on an 11-day trip this July that most report as an eye-opening or life-changing experience.
While abroad, the squad full of mostly 2001 birth year players not only played against various elite youth teams from the Osaka and Kyoto areas, but also trained with, received coaching instruction from and culturally immersed themselves in the philosophies of a foreign country.
For NorCal Premier, that soccer experience is a priority, but so are the experiences of its players as humans off the field.
“The soccer players, I ask, develop as a full person,” said NorCal vice president Paolo Bonomo. “When you have the soccer side and then you have the other side, which is off the field, [that’s the goal]. I think Japan, in that area, is second to none. It’s unmatchable. That to me is really a big part of this experience.”
NorCal’s relationship with the Japanese Football Association isn’t new — the JFA have sent over a team to train and play for the past three years.
In 2014, this year’s Japan trip coordinator, San Ramon FC recreational development director Jovan Yamagishi approached NorCal to arrange an exhibition in the Bay Area.
“It’s a match-up both teams look forward to every year, and I think PDP wanted to find out what it was like on the other side of the world rather than always playing in the Bay Area,” Yamigishi said.
After the match, which proved a success for both sides, the teams went out for pizza, in which discussions for expanding the partnership — including possibly sending a NorCal team over to Japan — began.
At first, it was thought to be too expensive, but with the help of Yamagishi, a Japanese native, and his connections, NorCal finally arranged a trip for 2016.
So on July 13, the NorCal players crossed the Pacific for a trip that most involved say was a trip of a lifetime.
For the players and coaches on hand, the first immediate difference on hand proved to be the differences in styles between the American and Japanese players.
“We knew already when we watched the World Cup, when we watched the Japanese national team, but the scrimmages confirmed at the youth level that already the Japanese girls are doing something right because technically [and tactically], they’re really, really proficient and very good,” Bonomo said. “We think they are ahead of our girls in that area.”
Added Erika Braun, a defender from Danville and Mustang: “They would always play through the keeper and play on the ground. Everything would be on the ground…What was totally different was we had to learn to play up to their speed of play. Their speed of play was so rapid.
“We had to re-adjust and learn,” Braun said. “Instead of being a little bit slower, taking your time, hitting long balls, we had to learn how to possess the ball, keep the ball in tight situations because they like to trap you and force you to be out of comfort with their style of play because they possess it so well.
“I definitely learned from that trip to be faster with my first touch, my first and second touches, keeping my head up at all times,” she added. “Now…I always notice myself checking [behind] my shoulders more, looking at the field, having better vision and just learning to play faster.”
Consistent with NorCal’s goals though, the trip brought Braun much more than a quickening of her speed of play.
“Being able to get out of my comfort zone and meet new people, be with different players, be with different coaches than I’m used to in a different places especially, made it so much more fun for me,” she said, adding that a highlight of the trip was attending school with some of the Japanese players.
“Going to school was definitely one of my favorite parts with them,” she said. “Just seeing how they learn and the way that it is, it just shows you how different the lifestyle is and you get to learn something from it. It’s really great.”
Part of that different lifestyle included Braun and the rest of the girls encountering a litter-free society without public trash cans (“You have to hold onto [trash] all the way literally back to the hotel and then throw it away.”) and taking a short expedition to the city of Nara, where feral deer walk amongst traffic.
Added Jadyn Shinn, a midfielder from Manteca and De Anza Force: “It was a really great experience. It was amazing to see how different countries go along with life…It’s crazy to think how their life is so much difference than ours. It was a really cool experience to kind of get involved with their culture…And it was a really great experience going to the temples because it gave us some of the culture and I think that really influenced part of Japan on me.”
While the trip earned rave reviews from everyone involved, it remains to be seen if it will become an annual occurrence as NorCal officials cite the overall cost of sending a large group of people halfway across the planet.
Yet, Yamagishi sees this as the first of hopefully many joint ventures between NorCal and its Japanese counterparts.
“This is a passion that I have to bridge the gap between U.S. soccer and Japanese soccer, especially for young boys and girls, so they experience something different,” he said. “I would hope that more players and teams would want to try to go abroad to Japan and see what is over there and how they are playing the game differently than we are.
“My goal is to set up more trips like this for players and teams so that the young generations down the line can achieve their goal in their careers and in their lives.”
Details of any possible future trips are still up in the air, but Bonomo and Yamagishi will return to the drawing board to decide what’s in the best interest of NorCal’s players, which may well be a return visit to Japan if player enthusiasm is to be factored in the decision-making process.
“I don’t even know how to explain how amazing that experience was,” Braun said. “If I had another opportunity, I’d definitely take it.”
By Evan Ream. Follow @EvanReam