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Veteran Japanese player sets example for Dutch Lions

Everyone around the Dayton Dutch Lions talks about the dedicated — almost spartan — approach Shintaro Harada takes with his profession.

“He really takes care of his body,” said Lions coach Patrick Bal. “He always does extra work on the field, at home he eats, sleeps, takes ice baths, prepares his own food, everything. He’s a true professional.”

You got a glimpse of some of that the other day after the Lions finished practice on the Miami Valley School soccer field.

As his teammates headed to the sidelines to get something to drink, change shoes or just sit, catch their breath and kibitz, the 32-year-old Japanese midfielder/defender ran some extra sprints, then went through his usual post-practice stretching exercises before taking a seat on the bench so a trainer could bring him the ice bags he routinely affixes to each ankle and his lower back.

Actually the physical attention had started when he awoke at his place in Centerville. He begins each day with a stretching regimen and then every night he sits in a hot tub to loosen his muscles and does one final stretching session just before he crawls into bed.

He prepares all his own food, as well.

“My mother is into nutrition and she taught me what to eat, what is healthy and how I can make it,” he said. “Japanese people love rice, so I have rice, meat and a salad — very basic. No fried food. I try to remove as much oil as possible from what I eat.

“And no junk food.”

As he thought about what he’d said, he started to smile and decided to ‘fess up:

“Except pizza. I love the American pizza. After the game, they serve pizza. They bring the boxes in the locker room and I eat. I always eat. I love the pizza.”

Harada has been playing in the United Soccer League — first in Baltimore, then Pittsburgh and this season in Dayton — for seven years now. He came from Sayama — a city on the Iruma River in Japan’s tea-growing region not far from Tokyo — and though he was just 25, he’d already made quite a name for himself in the J1 League, the top division of Japan’s Professional Football League.

By 19, he was playing for the Yokahama F. Marinos, a Division I team that drew big crowds to its home, the 72,000-seat Nissan Stadium.

And yet, it remains debatable if he’s the best known of the three Harada sons.

While his middle brother is a junior high and grade school soccer coach, his youngest brother, Yojiro, is an actor with Studio Life, a theater group in Tokyo.

“Oh yes, he is very big,” Harada said. “The group is well known and (Yojiro) has a lot of fans.”

More than him?

“No,” Harada said with a laugh, then a shrug, “Well, maybe.”

After playing for four teams around Japan, Harada decided to take his act abroad. He wanted to play in Europe and found a team in America he thought might act as the perfect bridge.

“Crystal Palace Baltimore was a brand new team in 2007,” he said. “They had just joined the USL (Second Division) and I figured if I went with them I might be able to go to the Crystal Palace team in London. They were connected.”

Although he knew little English when he arrived — “we study it in school beginning in junior high, but I knew just some basics,” he said — he listened to his teammates’ conversations and had an electronic English-to-Japanese interpreting device that helped him learn.

“I just kept trying to speak it and got better each year,” he said with a nod. “Can you understand me?”

When told “perfectly,” he beamed.

While he said it took a while to master his linguistic skills, his soccer play stood out instantly here.

He won all-league honors each of the three years he played with Baltimore and in 2009 was a finalist for MVP defender of the USL. He said he did get an invite to join the English Football League team and trained with it for three months and played practice matches, but had visa problems and returned to the States.

He played three seasons with another USL second division team — the Pittsburgh Riverhounds — and in 2010 again won first team all-league honors, was the MVP Defender of the League and a finalist for the USL’s overall MVP.

“Two years ago he already walked up to one of our coaches and said he was very much interested in the Dutch soccer style,” Bal said. “He knows everything about the Dutch game — the players, the teams, the way we play.”

Harada learned the Dutch “total soccer” approach, as it was called in the ’70s, from a Dutch coach he had in Japan. Last season he emailed Bal about the possibilities of joining Dayton this year, and when he failed to make the CE Sabadell team, a Spanish Segunda Division club located just outside Barcelona, he signed on with the Dutch Lions.

He’s the oldest player on the team and was brought in not just for his play on the field, but the way he could influence his younger teammates day in and day out.

“He’s an inspiration, a real mentor for younger players,” Bal said.

After Thursday’s 3-1 victory over Rochester at Beavercreek High School, the Dutch Lions are 7-2-5 at the midway point of the season and tied for fourth place in the USL Pro Standings. The top eight make the playoffs.

Harada said he likes Dayton: “It’s very peaceful here. Not rough. Very livable for me.”

He said he liked Baltimore and Pittsburgh, too, and had quite a following of Japanese fans when he was with the Riverhounds:

“There are many Japanese people in Pittsburgh and after every home game there might be a couple of hundred of them waiting to chat.”

That hasn’t happened here, but he has been able to maintain a connection with Japanese people through a blog he’s writing about the season.

You can find it at but it’s all in Japanese.

“I hope I can keep playing until I’m 40, maybe even 45,” Harada said.

When he sensed some skepticism from his inquisitor, he explained:

“I don’t feel tired for my age. I don’t feel old. That’s why I take care of my body. That’s why I try to do what’s right as much as possible.”

And that he does. When it comes to his profession, Harada treats his body as a temple.

Well, except for the postgame chow-downs in the dressing room.

Then it becomes a pizza parlor.

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