The Okinawan sniper

Okinawa is a unique land in Japan. People live longer, life is different and – talking about an island – surely being born and raised in such an environment brings you a totally diverse perspective. Uruma is among the cities of Okinawa Prefecture, hosting 110,000 people. Among them, until a few years ago, there was a kid, who just came out of Yokatsu High School and joined FC Ryukyu in 2016.

At that time, the club was surely capable of expressing an entertaining brand of football, but no one dared to imagine more than J3. Nevertheless, both the kid and the club grew fast, reaching promotion to J2 in 2018, winning the third tier on a landslide. In their first after that promotion, he was basically the revelation. Others might have tried for a further leap, but he decided otherwise.

In 2020, he joined Fagiano Okayama in a strange turn of events. Wasn’t there someone more interested than Okayama in him? Apparently not, but it was a mistake. He confirmed himself and, in his third year in the second tier, he’s clearly showing the potential he could offer to many teams, even in J1.

Satoki Uejo is just 24 years old, but he has still some ladders to climb in the Japanese football hierarchy. The beauty of it is that you can’t really tell when this rise might end. His right foot is one of the most recognizable in the last years and the sky might be limit, given his performances in Okayama. His last goal granted Fagiano another year in J2, a not-so-granted achievement, given how the relegation race has become a bloodbath.

After three years in J2, though, it might be time to look somewhere else. Further, ahead. Maybe one step higher.

Okinawa’s pride

At the Yokatsu High School, Uejo was clearly the pillar of the team. That’s why FC Ryukyu saw something in a kid who joined the club in 2016, without entering too much into rotations. Back then, the manager was Kim Jong-song and he had already a few players to count on: Yuta Togashi, Kazaki Nakagawa, Pablo, Yu Tomidokoro (when he wasn’t playing in the middle of the pitch).

Basically, there was no initial space for Uejo, even when the team steadily improved their performances on the table. And when 2018 came – the year of the championship –, Uejo scored his first ever pro-goal (actually, a brace against Kataller Toyama in the opening matchday). It wasn’t enough to grant himself a spot in the starting eleven, playing most of the season as a sub coming out from the bench.

That’s probably why no one expected Uejo to have a real breakthrough season. But when Ryukyu got promoted, they lost not only their manager, but also a bunch of key-players: captain and no. 1 Park left for Yokohama (Marinos), Edamoto signed for Kagoshima United FC, while Togashi went to Gifu. Okinawa needed a new hero for harder times, and they found him in Uejo.

When he got his chance in 2019 under Yasuhiro Higuchi, the new head coach moved him to a more central position, playing just behind the main striker. It worked: Uejo scored 17 goals in his rookie season in J2, a massive number. This would have granted him the chance of moving somewhere else and Uejo did exactly that. Just maybe not where everyone would have forecasted.

A magician in Okayama

Fagiano Okayama are famous for developing loaned players from the top-flight. They’re big enough to be considered a stable J2 team, but not big enough to ever dream of J1. They would like to try again – they reached the J2 playoffs final in 2016, only to lose it against Cerezo Osaka –, but the last four seasons have been difficult, mostly lived in the bottom half of the table. Especially in 2020, their performances dipped.

And that’s why the rise of Uejo looks even more impressive. Last Winter, Fagiano lost some players and suffered injuries throughout the year (Lee Yong-jae played very few games). Furthermore, their current head coach – Keiji Arima, a previous stint with YSCC Yokohama at the dawn of J3 – hasn’t particularly impressed overall. Nevertheless, Uejo is growing slowly and steadily.

Take for example this season: he played 95% of the minutes until now, starting all games but one and influencing one third of Fagiano’s offensive production. And we’re talking of a team which struggled to find the net. Yes, Okayama have the second-best defense in J2 (only behind Kyoto Sanga), but they scored just 27 goals (and that’s the second-worst outcome, tied with Matsumoto Yamaga and only ahead of SC Sagamihara).

In this scenario, Fagiano must be grateful of featuring Uejo. The forward featured in several positions: second striker (his favorite), side midfielder (showing a good spirit of sacrifice, essential for Okayama’s success), winger and even no. 9. He certainly showed a certain ductility for the greater good.

And then he scored this kind of beauties.

He takes a lot of shots – and their effectiveness has decreased since the time in Ryukyu: from a 19,7% conversion to goal to a 7,9% this year –, but the club must count on Uejo almost creating these chances out of nothing. There’s something to improve in his game, but one must wonder if that can happen only at a higher level.

Next step?

In fact, thanks to his personality and his contribute (especially from set pieces, where’s he a walking danger for the opponents), Okayama are finally out of trouble, and they can start to plan the next season. But will 2022 with Uejo still in the roster? We tend to think not.

Many J1 teams could really count on his range of qualities. Even the biggest clubs, as a rotation player, could find a bargain. Sanfrecce Hiroshima could rely on his strikes from long-distance to decide some games. Avispa Fukuoka could represent a good chance to come back to Kyushu and feature in his favorite 4-4-2. Shimizu S-Pulse really need to keep Thiago Santana around and match him with a solid second striker.

As we said at the beginning, the sky is the limit for the “Okinawan sniper”. He’s just to take aim and fire: once his goal will be on sight, he’ll rarely miss.

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