Thorns FC

With a little bit of curiosity and a leap of faith, Hina Sugita has raised her game

Midfielder Hina Sugita arrived in the Rose City looking to challenge herself. She’s grown as a person, evolved her game. And now she’s ready to help Japan make a run in her second World Cup.

Cherry blossoms in April, the Pacific Ocean at reach, and a 26-year-old midfielder that puts defenses on notice are just three of the several things Portland and Japan have in common.

With preparations underway in New Zealand for the Japan National Team, Thorns FC midfielder Hina Sugita inches closer to her second FIFA Women’s World Cup. She’s no stranger to the world stage, having starred for Japan at multiple youth World Cups and in the 2019 World Cup as a 22-year-old. But this World Cup, for Sugita, feels different.

The fact is, part of the reason Sugita is excited for the 2023 World Cup is being able to utilize the wealth of experience she has accrued in the last year-in-a-half spent as a Portland Thorn. As a person, Sugita is naturally curious, and it was that curiosity that led her to the Rose City. The decision to jump across the Pacific Ocean was not an easy one. It was a bit of a leap of faith considering her national team teammates were opting for Europe.

“In general, Japanese players want to go to Europe,” Sugita says. “When [Portland] contacted me, I thought this would be a place where I could maybe find what I don't have, and that would be a good challenge for me.”

As the Thorns prepared for what would be a championship-winning season in 2022, Sugita adapted to life in Portland and a playing style unlike anything she had experienced before.

“In a sense, Portland was not comfortable for me,” says Sugita. “In Japan, I have everything around me. I only have to walk on the street to see things that draw me in. Because I don’t know Portland very well yet, I need to figure out what I want to do and then how to get there.”

Sugita took that personal challenge – both on and off the field – head on.

“I thought that I would take this challenge and polish my skills,” she said. “It made me think of what I want to do on the field and, [being in Portland], I have the time to think what I want to do here. It's a calming place and it's a ‘good feeling’ place for me.”

A machine in the midfield, Sugita regularly wows supporters with her exceptional dribbling and split-second decision-making. It is a part of her game that has grown tremendously since her arrival. In Portland, she has found a confidence unbeknownst to her.

“I was aware before coming here that I needed to be more offensive individually,” said Sugita. “But I didn't have many opportunities to implement it [in Japan]. Soccer is [entirely] a team sport in Japan, and the fact that it's a team sport was kind of big on my mind.

“Clean play and accurate play is considered beautiful. So, I didn't have many opportunities to make mistakes. I couldn't really create a play where I had 50-50 chance of success or failure; it felt like I wasn’t allowed to,” she adds.

“Here in the U.S., players try to exert their strengths, to use their strong points. Japanese players tend to sort of cover up and hide their weak points, but here they try to highlight strong points and I see [it in] how they play.”

Joining the Thorns unlocked Sugita’s creativity on the field. “It made me want to try a more positive way of playing, the way that they play here,” she says. “It has removed the fears that I’ve had about the [challenges] I will face. I have come to the point where I can play in a way that will be challenging for the opposing team.”

And with a season in the NWSL under her belt, you can see her impact. In 12 appearances (11 starts) this season before departing for the World Cup, Sugita has recorded six goal contributions – three goals and three assists – and been a core figure in the club’s juggernaut offense, which leads the NWSL in goals scored by a mile. With Sugita on the Field, the Thorns are an 7-1-4 this season.

Always observant, Sugita has maximized her time at PTFC, surrounded by some of the best players in the world. Her skills are challenged day-in and day-out by world-class teammates, including four others heading to the World Cup.

And it’s because of her growth – both personally and professionally – since her move to Portland that has Sugita eagerly waiting for her second World Cup. Now with the perspective of a veteran player, she reflects on the opportunity that lies ahead for Japan.

“In 2011, Japan won the World Cup and that has been engraved in our history,” Sugita said. “Not only do the Nadeshiko want to repeat our 2011 triumph, but we also want to leave a lasting impression on Japanese youth.

“As a member of Japan’s 2023 World Cup team, we will try to get the best results and I hope that my play will resonate with both the people who are already playing soccer as well as those who have not started playing yet.”

Not afraid to be challenged or grow, Sugita’s potential impact for club and country is boundless.

“As long as I play here, I would like for the team to win and to elevate my play,” Sugita says. “[Portland] is the kind of place where I can be honest with myself. In that respect, I’m looking forward to the future.”