Asia Rising? Relative to the U.S. at least?

This is just a quicky, an idea I want to throw out there to see if I can’t kick up a discussion/round of speculation. For the record, watching Urawa Red Diamonds play AC Milan this morning inspired it.

Question: Is Japanese club football at a higher level than Major League Soccer (MLS)?

My answer: The way Urawa played against Milan makes me think yes. And it’s less that I think an MLS club couldn’t manage the same result than I suspect we would look at lot less polished and a lot more desperate in earning it. More to the point, whenever I watch Japanese, or even South Korean teams and players, I get the sense that they’re learning a more efficient and tactically sophisticated style of play. Add their insane fitness level and I’m to the point where I’d be less surprised at seeing Japan or South Korea win the World Cup than the United States National Team.

Fortunately, we’ll have something of a test on club side of the equation during this spring’s newly announced Pan-Pacific tournament, which will include two MLS clubs – the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo – plus one from Australia’s A-League and one from Japan’s J-League. That won’t be the best of tests, mainly because MLS’s clubs will be in preseason – early preseason, no less – and, well, LA is LA, by which I mean they’re the distracted mess from 2007 as opposed to one of their earlier incarnations. But, if my theory holds true, the Japanese team should do well in the tourney.

Against the larger theory, though, are two factors. 1) Apart from having a larger population all told, we’re making more babies than the Japanese and will have a generally younger population going forward; this augurs better for our future; the growing Hispanic/Latino influence in that population growth hardly hurts, either. 2) On the international level, we’ve held our own and, if you trust a really small sample, things might be trending our way already.

This last point is based on something less than the most thorough research – in fact, I’d love it if someone who knows where to look up the United States’ all-time record against the rest of the world would tell me where to look. But it looks like we’ve split the all-time series with Japan, losing in 1993 (referred to in an article that mentions an upcoming friendly in 2003, but we played Venezuela on the date mentioned) and beating them in a close one ahead of the 2006 World Cup. Now, it’s possible we played the Japanese “B-team” – I don’t know Japanese players well enough to say one way or the other – but, against that, we definitely played our B-team.

So, that’s a theory, one possibly informed more by impatience than reality. In any case, have at it.

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5 Responses

  1. This is a very interesting topic and I’m glad you touched on it. I know realitively nothing about the asian leagues, but if I was to take a wild guess, I would say that the Asian leagues would share some of the characteristics to the Mexiacn League whereas, the top teams are probably better than our top teams, but our league has better quality top to bottom (except for my piss poor Colorado Rapids team). I have nothing to base this on, but that’s the impression I get.

  2. Nice opinion piece, great topic. One variable to keep in mind, at least from my perspective, is that the J League has one major competitor (regarding domestic pro leagues) and that is Japanese baseball. From what I hear and have seen on TV, the J League does quite well with fan support, sponsorship and overall cultural acceptance (WC 2002 was a huge influence pre and post). I make this point because as you are fully aware here in the USA we still battle the big four, even though it’s probably more like the big three with baseball, american football, and basketball. Kids who will turn into athletes currently have three more popular (culturally influenced) choices when selecting the sport they wish to excel at. Certainly soccer is rising and becoming more accepted just like basketball and american football might be rising and becoming more accepted in Japan. I guess my point is I think this is a big variable in why Japan might have a development edge, despite our sheer numbers. But I do believe things are evolving and as the sport continues to grow its footprint, we will continue to get better individually and tactically from a team standpoint, and “it’s only a matter of time”.

  3. I think you’re operating from roughly where I am. I’m pretty consistently impressed when I see East Asian teams play (and, to be fair, some of the Middle Eastern teams do all right too). It’s possible the South Koreans are a bit better than the Japanese, but I’m not so sure on that either. And the parity angle is something else to consider (even if I didn’t).

    When the Club World Cup is over, I suspect I’ll try to tie the whole thing back to MLS and U.S. Soccer. I think we’d do all right in the tournament – or, more to the point, I don’t think we’d either embarrass ourselves and that we’d be comfortably competitive with teams outside UEFA and CONMEBOL. I danced around this in an earlier post, but will flesh it out a bit more when this thing’s over…though I’m not even sure I’ll be able to see the final…life, you see.

  4. I dig watching Ganbare, and the game looks fascinating in the J-League. However, I’ve seen a few games and it’s about where MLS is. Personally, I think their top 10 teams would do very well against our best ten. There’s no real drop off like you see in Europe.

    Also, they have a lot of Brazilians, their rosters number in the mid thirties, and J-2 is far, far better than the USL (in terms of support and level of play).

  5. Ganbare, duh. (or is it Gambare? I suppose you know better since you watch it). It never occurs to me to watch it…or, rather, it does, but I’m fighting for TV time in my household and I’m the only soccer person.

    Good points up there.

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