By Tom Dean
A quick glance at Yuki Nagasato’s career reveals a player in the company of some of the game’s most accomplished names.
A look into her future shows an exciting adventure on the horizon with new teammates at NWSL expansion team Racing Louisville FC next year.
But what she’s doing in the here-and-now is simply unprecedented.
With the NWSL on hold, the 33-year-old has swapped the Chicago Red Stars for amateur men’s football club Hayabusa Eleven in her home prefecture of Kanagawa for the remainder of 2020.
“It’s much different than playing with women, as you can imagine,” said the 2011 World Cup winner.
“I’m happy I can keep up technically but my decision-making has to be fast because the men are much faster than women. Overall, I am very happy to be playing with this team.”
“I am very happy to play football in general but this particular experience is a new challenge for me at the professional level.
“I aim to use this experience to continue to grow as a player and person.”
The exact details of the contract haven’t been revealed but the Chicago Red Stars announced the deal (and have since deleted the story) as a ‘loan’ describing Yuki’s involvement as ‘professional’ despite Hayabusa Eleven’s amateur status.
Besides Yuki, there’s only a handful of examples of women who’ve attempted to play in male professional/semi-professional leagues – all with limited success.
Candadian Stephanie Labbe trained with Calgary Foothills FC in 2018 with the intention of making the final roster but was later denied because of her gender.
While the Netherlands have given special dispensation to 19-year-old Ellen Fokkema to play for amateur side VV Foarut on a one season-only trial basis this year.
With an international career boasting 58 goals in 132 appearances for Japan, including at three World Cups and winning six L.League titles before embarking on a club career that would take her to four continents – Yuki has already achieved role model and icon status.
Now she’s trying to break down the gender barrier in her sport too.
“I hope women can see me and want to pursue their goals and dreams in life,” she said.
“It is important to be fearless and grow as a person in every way you can.
“I want women to be respected and seen for their talents first, not their gender.
“I believe the future of Japanese football is bright and has a lot of potential.”
What makes Yuki’s most recent venture even more incredible is that she’s joined older brother Genki at the club for a family reunion.
In 2011, Genki was playing in the top division of Japanese football with Ventforet Kofu but has tumbled through the tiers over the last few years and has recently returned from a serious knee injury.
And after a career that has taken her all over the world, Yuki has used the opportunity to re-acquaint herself with her brother, on a personal level as well as on the pitch.
“I have enjoyed sharing the pitch with Genki so far and we have great chemistry together when we play.
“I had not seen him or spent a lot of time with him up until not because of my career.
“Now I’m getting to know him all over again and I am grateful for this experience with him.”
Ahead of the 2021 NWSL expansion draft, Chicago traded Yuki to Kentucky-based newcomers Racing Louisville in order to protect the rest of their players from being poached.
The precise rules of the draft, which was completed on 12 November, are complicated (fully explained here – thanks Stu) but Yuki will have some exceptional teammates if all of Louisville’s picks make it to Kentucky next year.
She will also be leaving the windy city with an impressive record of 13 goals and 17 assists in 52 games since making her debut in 2017 in what appeared to be a difficult decision for head coach Rory Dames.
“Yuki’s connection to the city, the fanbase, her professionalism has set standards in our team that I didn’t even know existed prior to her being here. It’s a loss that will ripple through the group,” Dames told the Chicago Tribune.
“I can honestly tell you that since Yuki’s been here, she was literally the first player on the field every day and the last player off the field. I’ve genuinely never seen anything like it.”
Of her future move, Yuki said: “I am very excited to start a new experience. I am really looking forward to meeting my new teammates and coaches and experiencing a brand new club in the NWSL.”