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Yuka Momiki will challenge herself with the Reign

2020 SheBelieves Cup - United States v Japan Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

On Thursday evening, Japanese club Tokyo Verdy Beleza announced that Japan international Yuka Momiki had completed a transfer to NWSL club OL Reign.

Momiki, who has played 34 times at senior level for Japan, was born in the United States. Takumi Jeannin, an intermediary from A&V Sports that connected Momiki’s Japan-based agent and the Reign, tells All For XI that she has an American passport. Therefore, she will not count against the team’s international roster slots.

Japanese citizens are technically supposed to renounce other citizenship by age 22, but the nationality law is not enforced, and it’s widely considered impractical to do so. The Japanese Justice Ministry estimates that 90 percent of Japanese dual citizens do not renounce their other nationalities.

Despite international travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 24-year-old expects to travel to the United States this weekend. She’ll then have to quarantine for seven days before beginning training.

“I would like to thank the OL Reign who made me an offer during this global crisis,” Momiki said in her statement on Tokyo Verdy Beleza’s website. With the Reign’s willingness to both sign her and get her to the United States immediately, it seems the club anticipates that the rumored NWSL summer tournament is going to happen.

What Momiki has to say

Momiki gave an online video press conference following the announcement, which Dan Orlowitz was kind enough to provide a translation of for English-speakers. Momiki says that the Reign spotted her at March’s SheBelieves Cup, where she played all three matches for Japan.

Her comments about head coach Farid Benstiti’s opinion of American players might ruffle some feathers...

...but he’s right. There isn’t an American player similar to Momiki out there on the market. She’s a left-footed attacker who can play on the right or through the center, and she likes to be much more of a playmaker than a scorer. She often sets up in the half-space between where you’d expect a right winger and No. 10 to operate, and picks out teammates with passes on the ground, rather than trying to beat defenders with dribbles or crosses. And in contrast to the high tempo style that dominates NWSL, Momiki is a very patient, considerate player.

Momiki was also asked why she made the move to NWSL, and said that she felt the need to test herself against faster, stronger players at club level so she can be a better player for Japan.

Japan is a young, up-and-coming team that showed promise at the World Cup and SheBelieves, but most of its current squad lacks international experience. Momiki is clearly hoping that playing in NWSL prepares her for the 2021 Olympics — if they go ahead — and future World Cups.

So, about SheBelieves

American audiences actually got to see what Momiki could do for the first time at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup, when she scored this absolute stunner against Brazil.

Japan wasn’t as good of an all-around team at the 2020 edition of the tournament, but Momiki had a bigger role, and was one of her team’s bright spots. She looked equally adept at playing as a second striker underneath a true center forward, or on the right wing. In the match against the United States, Momiki regularly figured out how to create space for herself to receive the ball away from American defensive midfielder Julie Ertz, then make a quality pass before she could be closed down. Her intelligence and composure in that match probably convinced the Reign that she could handle the physically rigorous NWSL.

Inevitably, Momiki will be compared to other Japanese players, as well as other players who are close to her height of 5’0”. But she doesn’t play similarly to any of the Japanese stars that have come to NWSL before her, and her size didn’t appear to be an issue against the USWNT.

Where does Momiki fit into OL Reign?

While Benstiti is right that it’s hard to find players like Momiki in America, there are a few others on the Reign squad that fit the general descriptor of attackers who are more playmaker than shooter, and not especially fast. There’s no sensible way to put Momiki, Megan Rapinoe, Sofia Huerta and Bethany Balcer on the field at the same time. But Momiki is the only one of the bunch who primarily plays on the right, so they might not be battling for the same pools of playing time.

The Reign’s other attackers — Darian Jenkins, Jasmyne Spencer, Rosie White and Jodie Taylor — are a bit more focused on creating shots for themselves, and fill out a deep forward line.

But that’s eight players competing for three or four spots on the field, depending on what formation Benstiti wants to play. Depth is a positive thing, but having a couple of good players permanently buried on your bench isn’t exactly efficient use of cap or roster space.

So here’s my hunch. OL Reign — and probably every other team, for that matter — is anticipating that someone currently listed on its roster isn’t going to report to Utah for the summer tournament. I don’t want to speculate on who’s going to skip out, or for what medical or family reasons they will do so, but the current situation makes it hard to evaluate any moves from a roster construction standpoint. Even if Covid-19 infection rates drop significantly in the next month, competing in the the Utah tournament might not be practical or safe for every player.

In any event, I like Reign’s decision to sign Momiki. I’m not worried about her lack of size. I don’t think a wide player necessarily has to be able to dribble past a fullback and put a cross in to be effective. And on top of that, as a domestic player, she’s one hell of a find.