While the United States women’s national team qualified for the 2015 World Cup in October on home soil, two regulars were across the globe in Japan, fine-tuning their games in hopes of being on next year’s World Cup roster.
Rachel Van Hollebeke and Kristie Mewis each signed for the Nadeshiko League’s Iga FC Kunoichi in October to sharpen their games in the NWSL offseason. Both players were left off Jill Ellis’ 20-player World Cup qualifying roster, but are still well in the mix to be on the 23-player roster headed to Canada next year.
“I thought it would be good for my game and a great cultural experience,” Van Hollebeke said of going to Japan. “There are so many things already that I feel like culturally have just been really interesting, memorable and a great life experience. For a variety of reasons I was like, ‘yea, I’ll just go for it.’”
Those cultural experiences include something as basic as grocery shopping. Even adjusting to the different ways the trash gets sorted was a challenge, Van Hollebeke said with a laugh.
Iga FC Kunoichi has been locked into a relegation battle for the majority of season and needed some additional players to try to stay in Japan’s top flight. Van Hollebeke stayed in touch with the translator of one of her old FC Gold Pride teammates, Eriko Arakawa. Her translator also facilitates transfers and loans between the U.S. and Japan, and he reached out to the Van Hollebeke on Facebook to see if she would be interested in playing abroad.
In a series of events the U.S. center back describes as “very serendipitous,” she found out a couple of days later that she would not be on the U.S. qualifying roster. With the NWSL in its offseason and the U.S. off for the month of November, Van Hollebeke had at least a two-month gap where she might not be playing competitive soccer. She played in only 12 of 24 Portland Thorns FC matches in 2014 after injuring her ankle with the United States, just before the season-opener, and then suffering a mid-season concussion.
“I feel like it has been a rough year for my body in general,” she said. “I don’t know why – sometimes it just ebbs and flows and once one thing is off then the next thing is off.”
Van Hollebeke’s main goal for personal improvement in Japan is to become more comfortable on the ball, a technical quality typically strong amongst Japan’s top players.
As for the 23-year-old Mewis, who is Van Hollebeke’s roommate in Japan, the goal in Japan is to round-out her game. Mewis made her professional debut with FC Kansas City in 2013, playing in 20 matches and earning U.S. Soccer subsidized status after being drafted No. 3 overall in the college draft. She made her homecoming this year with the Boston Breakers after a series of trades, scoring three goals in 17 matches for a Breakers team that finished second from bottom in the league.
Mewis wanted to make an offseason move abroad but missed out on the European transfer window, leaving her options at Australia and Japan. She trained with the U.S. in Kansas City ahead of qualifying despite not being on the tournament roster. Mewis sees this move as a chance to improve her game in the homestretch to the World Cup.
“In terms of the national team, I need to stop playing like I’m still a young player,” Mewis said in October. “I haven’t really gone out of my comfort zone and at the end of the day that’s hurting me. I think these next three months will help my confidence and diligence on and off the field.”
The players’ contracts are technically not loans, since U.S. Soccer — not their club teams — owns owns U.S. player contracts in the NWSL.
Iga FC is locked into a relegation battle, which continues with a two-leg playoff on Nov. 15 and 23 against Nippon Sport Science University L.S.C., a team seeking promotion from the second division. Van Hollebeke and Mewis will return stateside once the Iga’s season ends, which will be before the New Year.
Next up for the United States is a trip to Brazil for a four-team tournament in December against Argentina, China and the hosts, followed by the traditional January training camp in Los Angeles. Ellis said recently that she is open to looking at new players in January, a camp which typically yields an expanded roster size.
Both players hope to be on the plane to Brazil, but the greater goal is making the 23-player roster for the 2015 World Cup.
“I think it’s crucial for me this year to improve on a lot of things, my professionalism being one,” Mewis said. “Making the World Cup roster is my goal. This Japan opportunity is great because I am getting games in, training every day, and taking care of my body. So hopefully if (or) when I get a call in with the national team I will be ready.”
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