2019 SheBelieves Cup team preview: Japan
Japan opens 2019 with a slate of three difficult games to prepare for the 2019 Women's World Cup. | Photo: IQRemix

As the 2019 SheBelieves Cup approaches, VAVEL USA will be previewing each of the four teams participating in the tournament. Japan and the United States played in the last two Women's World Cup finals with Japan winning in 2011 and the USA winning in 2015. The 2019 Women's World Cup will take place in France this summer, and something feels different about the Japanese women's national team this time around. They struggled through disappointing campaigns in 2017 and 2018, so they decided to come back to the United States to face off against three of the best teams in the world at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup. 

Desperate for a high-quality win

Japan played a lot of games in 2018. 20, to be exact, but they had a lot of difficulty winning against quality opponents. Of those 20 games, just six were against teams that missed out on the upcoming World Cup, and Japan won all of those matches. Seven of the games were played against teams ranked in the top-10 by FIFA, and Japan won just once in those games. Japan, ranked eighth in the world, wasn't even seeded in Pot 1 for the 2019 Women's World Cup draw. They were drawn into the same group as fourth-ranked England; one of their competition in this tournament.

All of that leaves the Japanese side desperate for a win, or more than just one win, in the upcoming SheBelieves tournament. The United States, England, and Brazil all rank in the top-10. Right now, the Japanese team is extremely young, so a big win in an intense environment might be able to turn things around. Just three of the players on the roster for this tournament are over the age of 30, but 13 are 23 or younger. That leaves a lot of room for young players to learn and grow ahead of the World Cup.

Alex Morgan (left) and Saki Kumagai (right) warm up together in France. | Photo: Estelle Capron
Alex Morgan (left) and Saki Kumagai (right) warm up together in France. | Photo: Estelle Capron

Expectations for the tournament

Japan isn't the same team that made the World Cup finals in 2011 and 2015. They have struggled both offensively and defensively against good opponents in the last year, so there will be plenty to take away from these three games. First, it would be good to see them hold all three of their opponents to one or zero goals. That might seem impossible, but the defense has some growing to do. Captain Saki Kumagai is an international superstar on defense - she plays for Lyon in France, widely regarded to be the best women's club side in the world - and there is plenty of experience on the defensive side of the ball for Japan. They lost every game in 2018 where their opponent scored more than one goal.

On offense, Japan has been scoring at a decent clip. When it comes to tougher competition, though, Japan was averaging just one goal per game. That won't be good enough to get them through the World Cup without some luck. Goal scoring experience is severely lacking for Japan. Just two players, midfielder Emi Nakajima and forward Kumi Yokoyama, have scored more than ten goals for their country in the current roster. Compare that to the United States where eight players have scored more than ten goals, England also has eight players with ten or more goals, and Brazil has three. Of course, one of those three for Brazil is Marta. Short of an emerging offensive superstar, Japan will need to rely primarily on their ability to prevent the other team from scoring to win games. 

The most important game for Japan will be the one against England, since they will face off in the group stage of the 2019 Women's World Cup. If they can win that game, it should give them the confidence to go deep in the tournament. If they lose all three matches they might be looking at an early exit over the summer.