Thorns FC

What Hina Sugita adds to Thorns FC's midfield

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PORTLAND, Ore. — High-profile international arrivals are part of Portland Thorns FC’s identity. It started in 2014 when a former world player of the year, Nadine Angerer, arrived to complete a storied career. France’s Amandine Henry, one of the best midfielders in the world, arrived shortly after, while Australia’s Ellie Carpenter came to the States as she turned 18 years old. Finland’s best player, Natalia Kuikka, continued that pattern last season.

Other teams in the National Women’s Soccer League have done their part to make the United States’ top division a global destination, but with today’s announcement, the Thorns are branching out slightly further. Due to arrive in Portland in the coming weeks, 24-year-old Japanese international Hina Sugita is set to become the club’s first Nadeshiko Japan player, adding another international-caliber talent to the team’s midfield.

“Hina is a player that the club has been pursuing for the last few years, and we are happy to welcome her to Portland,” Karina LeBlanc, Thorns FC’s general manager, said in the team’s announcement. “She is a young talent with international experience and a skillset that strengthens our roster.”

When she debuts, Sugita will add her name to a long and prominent list of Japanese talents to play in the NWSL. Then-OL Reign player Nahomi Kawasumi, now with NY/NJ Gotham FC, was the first to arrive in 2013, but the path has since been followed by the likes of Yuki Nagasato, who landed in Chicago in 2017, as well as another Reign midfielder, Rumi Utsugi. Washington’s Saori Takarada and Kumi Yokoyama are, like Nagasato, currently active in the NWSL, though Sugita comes with some important distinctions.

Still just 24, Sugita is entering the prime of a career that already features appearances at an Olympics and World Cup. One of the best midfielders in Japan’s WE League, Sugita has the potential to be one of the best in the world at her position. A move to the NWSL will test whether she’s ready to reach that level.

“Hina is a playmaker with the ability to play across multiple positions,” Rhian Wilkinson, the Thorns’ head coach, explained. “She plays with bravery on the ball always looking for opportunities to be dangerous, she sees passes others do not see. Her on-field vision, creativity and ball control are traits that allow her to find a way out of tight positions to break open opposing teams.”

This is a huge move for Sugita, and one that comes with significant risk. Off the field, Sugita is moving to a new league with a distinct and different style. The pace of play in the NWSL can be frantic, make unique physical demands, while doing so amid some of the deepest rosters in the world. Kuikka found out as much last season when it took her two-to-three months to adapt to the circuit. Like Sugita, Kuikka opted into a world where there were significant differences in language and culture, though Kuikka was familiar with those challenges thanks to her time at Florida State University. Sugita does not have that experience.

What she has, though, is significant professional experience. Sugita has been playing in the WE League since she was 18 and has accumulated 21 caps for her senior national team. At an age when many U.S. talents are finding their footing in the pros, Sugita is striving for her next level. That could be as a holding midfielder, where her quality on the ball and speed of play would add something new to almost any NWSL midfield; as more of a central midfielder, whose skill on the ball would be weaponized into the vast spaces created by the Thorns’ forwards; or as an attacking midfielder, whose creativity and technical quality would bring a new dimension to the team’s attacking options.

That’s why the on-field parallel for Sugita will be less Kuikka more Henry, even if they’re very different players. Henry’s a high standard, but here, the standard isn’t the point. The point is the journey that Thorns fans saw after the French international’s arrival. At first, it wasn’t clear how, exactly, Henry would have her biggest impact on the NWSL. Would she be best in an all-around role? Or somebody who just sat deep in midfield? With Henry’s quality, asking her to be only one thing would be a waste, which is why the right fit took time. Once time played out, Henry was a game-changing performer.

Within the Thorns, there’s a belief Sugita could have a similar impact, part of the reason why theirs has been a multi-year pursuit. In an ideal world, she would have arrived sooner, but COVID-19 and the delayed Olympics played their parts.

Now, with her move finalized, Sugita is finally claiming her place as a Thorn, arriving just in time to spend her prime years in Portland.