The next men’s World Cup takes place in 2026 and when it does, Canada, Mexico and the United States play host.

Yohei TakaokaVancouver Whitecaps FC's offseason signing from J1 League champions Yokohama F. Marinos who's emerged as one of the top goalkeepers in Major League Soccer this year – hopes to represent Japan in that World Cup. And that dream is part of the journey that brought him to MLS.

Speaking to MLSsoccer.com over Zoom, Takaoka opened up on soccer in Japan, the decision to pursue his World Cup dream in North America, and the exciting challenge of trading clubs, cities and cultures with his recent move.

Yokohama origins

The 27-year-old first remembers playing soccer in the family garden in Yokohama. That’s where he began to learn the game under the tutelage of his parents and alongside his brother. Recalling those first touches in Japan brings a smile to his face: “I was young, maybe four or five years old. And I played with my big brother. It was a good memory… It was fun.”

Takaoka reckons many kids in Japan did the same. He’d play with them in the park and at school. Now, by his estimation, soccer is so popular in Japan that perhaps only baseball surpasses it.

According to the Whitecaps' shot-stopper – who joined the call fresh off a Canadian pitch where he’s preparing for Saturday's Matchday 11 showdown at home against Minnesota United FC (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) – that surge in popularity is due in part to the Samurai Blue, Japan’s national team.

“I think soccer is more popular now because of the [2022] World Cup," said Takaoka. "The Japan national team plays well, so it’s getting more popular.”

Takaoka diving

The success of that national team – and its generation of players spread across the globe, working their way to the world’s top leagues – has inspired Takaoka as well, helping fuel the decision to join Vancouver.

Reflecting on the performances of the Samurai Blue in Qatar – where they topped Group E after defeating powerhouses Germany and Spain before falling in penalties to Croatia in the Round of 16 – Takoka says he feels proud. He emphasizes the respect he has for the team. Despite not yet receiving a senior call-up, the chance to one day play with them is now his main motivation.

“I'm very proud of that national team. And the next World Cup is 2026, here [in North America]. I want to play there. That's my motivation now," Takoka said. “That's why I came here. To play here, not only Canada but in the United States: a lot of places to play away from home. It's a good experience for me.”

New continent, new cultures

When Takaoka made the decision to leave Yokohama last year, it was an emotional choice, but one he felt was important to his career goals. In moving his life to a new continent, he left behind his childhood home and he left Yokohama F. Marinos after just winning the championship with them, collecting a J1 League Best XI accolade as their goalkeeper.

“Last year [with Yokohama F. Marinos] I won the J1 League and I won the best 11 of J1 League," he recalled. "So that's why it's time to move. I need a new challenge. I want to be successful not only in Japan, but in other countries. So that's why I decided to come here.”

No move is ever easy, Takaoka says, but the new challenge is specifically what he sought out: “It's not easy to go to different places, not even in Japan. I moved here and it's a different culture, different language, different soccer style, everything is different.”

Takaoka controls ball

With a nod towards his teammates, the fans and his club in Vancouver, Takaoka says he’s been able to handle those changes with confidence: “Everyone helps me a lot. I really appreciate it. That's why I’m comfortable to play here with confidence.

“...It's not only on the pitch. Off the pitch, they're so kind and open arms."

And rather fortuitously, Vancouver manager Vanni Sartini speaks Japanese, a convenient factor in Takaoka’s transition, and one that surprised him at first. Sometimes instructions for Yohei come from the gaffer in Japanese – during games or in team meetings.

“His Japanese is so good," Takaoka said of Sartini. "So good. I can communicate with him in Japanese. He's an amazing guy.”

“[He speaks Japanese] in the meeting sometimes and everyone is like, what is that? Everyone doesn't understand, but Vanni and me can understand.”

As for Sartini, the Whitecaps manager says having Takaoka with the team helps him practice his Japanese. He says even the team has picked up a few phrases, learning from conversations between the keeper and gaffer. All of this, he believes, makes Takaoka feel valued.

“I speak Japanese with him almost every day and sometimes when I have to give instructions to him on the field," said Sartini. "Even if I know that he understands English, it's the same with the Spanish-speaking player. ... Even if I know they understand English, I think it gives them the thing that we really care for them, if we are making an effort to speak in their language.”

The city of Vancouver is itself a help in the transition, with a mix of nature, food and welcoming locals that Takaoka feels gratitude for: “The city is amazing and the water, the nature, the good restaurants, good food, the people are so kind. Everything is perfect. I'm really, really comfortable to live here.”

Hitting his stride

The transition is still fresh and while Takaoka adjusts to his new home in Canada, he must also adapt to a new league and club. As the season continues, Takaoka admits he's becoming more comfortable on the field and with his teammates. He feels he could be hitting his stride, but emphasized that he needs to stay focused.

After going winless in their first five games of the 2023 MLS season, Vancouver turned a corner on April 1 with a 5-0 beatdown of fellow Canadian side CF Montréal. They’ve since picked up points from their last four matches. And most importantly for Takaoka, he’s kept clean sheets in each of those games – including an 89th-minute penalty kick save on Diego Rubio that preserved a 0-0 draw against the Colorado Rapids last Saturday, earning Team of the Matchday presented by Audi honors in the process.

Takaoka says that turning-point match against Montréal is the highlight of his experience so far.

“We got the first MLS league win against Montréal, five-nil," Takaoka said. "That was a nice moment. After, we celebrated and everyone came to me and said ‘You played well, congratulations.’”

The fans, he says, were cheering him on too: “The fans were so amazing. So even before the game, enjoying the game, after the game, everyone was calling my name. Everyone cheers us up. I'm really happy to fight with them.”

Takaoka is proud of the form he’s found since then but adds emphasis on his focus: “I have to stay calm. The season is long and there comes different times. I have to be ready for that and I need consistency.”

It’s still early days in the Major League Soccer tenure of the promising goalkeeper from Yokohama, but he’s settled quickly and is focused on mastering the transition and representing his home nation one day, through success in MLS.

“I want to be a champion in MLS. I won the J1 League year. It was amazing, an amazing time, an amazing moment. I want to achieve that every season. I know it's tough, but I think that's the barrier to being a champion," Takaoka said.

"So that's why I try to do my best every day, keep working hard. And also I want to be selected by the Japan national team, to play the World Cup in 2026 here. These two things are my motivation.”

Takaoka waves