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Hina Sugita: Analyzing the Thorns’ latest international signing

What does the Japanese midfielder bring to the Thorns and how does she fit in the team?

Japan v Australia - Women’s International Friendly Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Portland Thorns FC signed Japanese midfielder Hina Sugita to a three-year contract on January 26, 2022. The deal was years in the making but the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics stalled the deal until now.

Sugita turns 25 years old today and has already racked up loads of international experience on the youth and senior levels. She has played in two U-17 Women’s World Cups and was given the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player in her second U-17 World Cup in 2014.

Sugita has thrived in international tournaments, picking up the tournament MVP in the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship in 2013 and the Golden Ball in the 2016 U-20 World Cup. Sugita has been capped by the Nadeshiko Japan senior team 27 times and appeared in both the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.

Japan v Spain: Final - FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Costa Rica 2014 Photo by Martin Rose - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

At the club level, Sugita debuted in 2015 for Japanese side INAC Kobe Leonessa and was named Best Young Player in 2016. Sugita has helped her club win two Empress Cups (2015, 2016). She has started nine matches and scored one goal in the WE League this season and INAC Kobe Leonessa are currently unbeaten and sit atop the table.

Hina Sugita’s Player Profile

Japan v Paraguay - Women’s International Friendly Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

I watched three INAC Kobe Leonessa matches from 2021 to gain a better understanding of the kind of player Sugita is and how she will fit into this iteration of the Portland Thorns. The matches were played relatively recently. INAC Kobe played Nippon TV Tokyo Verdy Beleza (fourth in the league at the time) on Oct. 9, 2021, Urawa Red Ladies (fourth in the league at the time) on Nov. 7, 2021, and Mynavi Sendai Ladies (third in the league at the time) on Nov. 20, 2021.

Sugita started and played 90 minutes in all three matches. The Japanese international is very talented and versatile. She can play as a No. 10, No. 6 and No. 8 and this versatility is sure to allow her to slot into the Thorns’ midfield nicely but she played in a unique left-sided No. 8 role for INAC Kobe Leonessa which makes use of her box-to-box profile.

It’s immediately evident that Sugita has a great engine. She was deployed as the left-sided midfielder in a 3-4-3 and would overlap to offer as a wide option for the sometimes narrow front three, but would also drop in beside the left center back to help in defense. Sugita tracks runners and reads attackers’ movements well. She rarely goes to ground to win the ball but rather she makes use of her intelligent positioning to stall attackers and picks their pockets.

Sugita is an extremely talented attacking player who offers a lot going forward but is also crucial to INAC Kobe Leonessa’s ability to play out of the back. In the WE League, Sugita was typically positioned near the left touchline. She dropped deep to connect with the left center back and the more central midfielders to help progress the ball down the flank.

Sugita adds a level of calmness to the team when she is on the ball. One of her greatest strengths is her press resistance. Sugita reads the game well but she is also a very technical dribbler which allows her to get by defenders or create just enough of a passing window to play out of danger.

The Japanese midfielder isn’t the quickest but pace isn’t a problem especially because of her technical ability. She can break lines with the ball at her feet with her gliding strides and her ability to cut defenders off with her positioning, making it impossible for defenders to put in a challenge without fouling. Sugita does not drive through the midfield often but she selects her moments effectively.

As Sugita and her team progress up the pitch, the Japanese midfielder becomes unpredictable. She can come inside behind the front three and act as a true No. 10 or she can drift wide left. It seems as though Sugita prefers to run into space down the left where she can face up against defenders. She is able to go at defenders one-versus-one and can often come out on top even if she is outnumbered. Sugita uses cutbacks, drag backs and shoulder feints to devastating effect, leaving defenders in her wake as she drives into the 18-yard box or crosses.

Sugita is a playmaker with the ball at her feet whether she is dribbling past defenders or playing progressive passes to her teammates. Her vision and ability to play weighted passes into stride for forward runners are impressive. Sugita uses her skill on the ball to create passing lanes and quickly releases players into space. She can also play vertical balls into the channels, switch the point of attack and provide dangerous service into the area with both feet.

Sugita’s fit at Portland Thorns FC

INAC Kobe Leonessa v Omiya Ardija Ventus - WE League Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Sugita is a very technical and skillful player that can slice defenses open in multiple ways. Thorns fans should be excited that a player of this quality and creativity will be in Portland for the next three years.

Signing Sugita was a great move by the Thorns and it’s a testament to her quality that the club pursued her for multiple years despite the setbacks that prevented her from signing with Portland earlier. This acquisition becomes even more monumental because of the recent news that Lindsey Horan has joined Olympique Lyonnais on loan until June 2023.

Horan has been a fixture in the side since joining Portland in 2016 and has been a constant source of creativity and ball progression, which will be very difficult to replicate. The Thorns will also be without Crystal Dunn to start the season due to her pregnancy and could be without 2021 NWSL MVP candidate Angela Salem, who may or may not be retiring soon.

If the Thorns are without all three of these players there is no doubt the team’s overall quality and depth take a hit but Portland still have many quality midfielders that can combine to make a midfield that can compete with any other midfield in the league.

It also seems as though the days of Mark Parsons’ signature 4-4-2 diamond may be behind the Thorns and Rhian Wilkinson could opt for a three-player midfield.

“I love their willingness to win the ball back,” said Rhian Wilkinson in her first press conference with Thorns FC. “I love their will to live on the ball in a league that is very transitional. That is a structural piece, I think there’s a time to live on it a little bit more but in terms of what’s already being done here, this book does not need to be rewritten.”

“There are absolutely things I want to change and bring in my own style and personality to what this team is going to be doing,” Wilkinson continued. “An easy example would be using a bit more width in the build-up. But with the level and caliber of players that are here and that are already performing you have to appreciate what Mark [Parsons] did playing through the middle with these incredible athletes turning and being dangerous often in games. So keeping a lot of that. That engine to defend is critical to my success next season. I’ve got to keep that.”

I could be reading too much into this quote but with the personnel still at Thorns FC and the emphasis on building from the back with more width, I think it is possible that the Thorns use more of a 4-3-3 formation during 2022. Obviously, there is no way to know until the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup but there are a few parts of Wilkinson’s answer that suggest to me that we may see a structural change in the way that the Thorns play.

This change may also relate to the amount of depth the team has lost in midfield and the Thorns will likely lose even more of that depth due to international windows with the likes of Sugita and Rocky Rodriguez likely being called up to their respective national teams.

Regardless of whether the team plays a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3 or another formation, Sugita will likely play the left-sided eight, filling into the position that has for so long been occupied by Horan.

INAC Kobe Leonessa v Omiya Ardija Ventus - WE League Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Horan and Sugita are not the same type of player but they share similarities stylistically. Both players demand the ball regardless of where they are on the field. They are constantly showing for the ball, receiving, facing up to defenders and looking for progressive passes.

Sugita and Horan also both like to drift to the left to combine with the left-sided defender and attacker but also like to drift inside behind the forwards. Sugita will be able to do this even more with the Thorns than she did in Japan. At INAC Kobe Leonessa the left-sided defender was a center back that needed to stay home to ensure defensive solidity. With the Thorns, Sugita will be able to combine Meghan Klingenberg, who loves to get forward down the left.

Klingenberg was the Thorns' top chance creator last season and will be able to link up with a player in Sugita who has the potential to challenge Klingenberg as the team’s primary creative force. Horan and Klingenberg’s combinations down the left were integral to the Thorns’ chance creation last season and Sugita and Klingenberg will look to do the same this season.

Sugita will also be able to get on the ball more for the Thorns. INAC Kobe Leonessa asked her to patrol the touchline and let the double pivot in the 3-4-3 shoulder a lot of the central progression. Sugita shows for the ball constantly and should get more touches and central involvement in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 and will be able to link up with the likes of Rodriguez, Yazmeen Ryan and Sam Coffey in midfield.

Sugita and the Thorns will also benefit from the skillsets of the forwards. Both Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver are pacey players who make intelligent runs behind the defense. Sugita has the intelligence to spot these runs early and the ability to play the right pass for the forwards to run onto. The Japanese international brings an ability to break lines with her passing that is unique and should add another dimension to the Thorns’ attack.

Overall, this is a very promising signing. It will be interesting to see how Rhian Wilkinson sets up the team and how the Thorns evolve from the Challenge Cup through the regular season. Sugita seems like she will fit well with the Thorns’ personnel and should be able to slot into the left-sided No. 8 role. Sugita will be making a difficult transition from the WE League and Japan to the NWSL and Portland and it will take time for the Thorns to fully benefit from what she has to offer but she will have an important role to play in the absence of Horan and in what looks to be a rather inexperienced but promising midfield for the Thorns.