Around the World in Women's Soccer: The Nadeshiko League
Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: the first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.
The Japan Women's National Team (WNT) has been a threat to the United States for the last decade. The U.S. has faced off against Japan in two World Cup finals, an Olympic gold medal match, and many smaller international competitions. But while many fans are familiar with Japanese soccer on the national team level, fewer are familiar with Japan's domestic league system.
The Nadeshiko League, established in 1989, features 32 teams across three different divisions: Division 1 (10 teams), Division 2 (10 teams), and Challenge League (12 teams). The league uses a promotion/relegation system, where teams in the Challenge League can be relegated to regional leagues. Only one team has been in the top-flight without relegation since 1989: Nippon TV Beleza (NTV Beleza).
NTV Beleza is by far the most successful domestic team in Japan. In their 31 year history, they have been champions of the Nadeshiko League seventeen times, including every year for the last five years. They have won the Empress's Cup fourteen times, including every year for the last three years, and they have won the League Cup seven times, with their most recent title coming in 2018. They won the inaugural AFC Women's Club Championship in 2019, defeating Jiangsu Sunling Ladies FC from the Chinese Women's Super League. Japan's most recent national team roster featured eight players from NTV Beleza.
In addition to the Nadeshiko League, Japanese clubs also compete each year in the Empress's Cup and the League Cup. The Empress's Cup is the equivalent of an FA Cup and has been played since 1979. The League Cup, originally called the L.League Cup, started in 1996 but was abolished in 1999. It was revived in 2007, under the name Nadeshiko League Cup.
The most successful clubs after NTV Beleza are Urawa Red Diamond Ladies (based in Saitama) and INAC Kobe Leonessa (based in Kobe). In 2019, Urawa Red Diamond Ladies finished as the No. 2 team in the Nadeshiko League. They have won three league championships, with their most recent title coming in 2014. They had four players featured on the most recent national team roster, including Yuika Sugasawa, who has over 70 NT caps.
INAC Kobe Leonessa have also been league champions three times. In fact, they won the league three years in a row: from 2011 to 2013. Their 2011 roster featured seven World Cup champions, including Homare Sawa, Megumi Takase, and Nahomi Kawasumi. They finished the 2019 season in the No. 3 spot and had five players featured on the most recent national team roster. They have won the Empress's Cup six times, including three titles in that three year spell where they won the league championship, and they won the League Cup in 2013.
INAC Kobe Leonessa also has one of the league's best players: Mina Tanaka. Tanaka joined INAC Kobe this offseason, after spending the last nine years with NTV Beleza. At 26-years-old, she has been the league's leading goal-scorer for the last four years. Last year, she scored 20 goals in 18 games to help lift her team to the No. 1 spot. She has also been named league MVP for the last two years.
It's still early in the 2020 Nadeshiko League season, but currently Cerezo Osaka sits in the No. 1 spot with four wins in four matches. They were only promoted from Division 2 this past offseason, so we'll have to wait and see if they are able to sustain that success. INAC Kobe is the No. 2 team in the league, with three wins and one draw in their first four games. NTV Beleza currently sits in the No. 4 spot.
There are some changes coming to domestic women's soccer in Japan. Starting in 2021, there will be a new league called the WE league, which will be the top-flight league. The Nadeshiko League is only a semi-professional league, but the WE league will require teams to sign at least five players to fully professional contracts. 17 clubs have applied to be a part of WE league; only 8-10 will be admitted.
If you want to watch the Nadeshiko League, you can find their games on YouTube.