Keisuke Honda paved new roads earlier in his career, first starring for CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League before making a big move to AC Milan.
But now he’s heading in a direction many from Europe travel to, though his destination was a surprise.
Honda announced early Friday morning that he had signed with reigning Liga MX champions Pachuca, becoming the latest high-profile European player to join Liga MX after Frenchman Andre-Pierre Gignac joined Tigres UANL.
The 31-year-old midfielder comes in as a replacement for budding Mexico National Team star Hirving Lozano, who signed with PSV Eindhoven earlier this summer, though the pair play different roles in midfield.
Honda only played in eight games in Serie A last season and will have his hands full with adjusting to the language and culture of Mexico along with the Liga MX style of play. However, if Gignac’s example is anything to follow, after some time to bed in, Honda can have a big impact in Mexico and could encourage others to join.
Pachuca is coming off defeating Mexican giants Club America in the Clausura Liguilla final and as winners of the CONCACAF Champions League, they’ll be playing this winter in the 2017 Club World Cup.
Honda will also be teammates with U.S. Men’s National Team centerback Omar Gonzalez.
Report: Sounders on verge of adding AC Milan’s Honda
“I’m learning. Sometimes I have some trouble but I’m improving,” the Japan international told the Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday. “I played behind the strikers for many years and now the assignment has changed.”
Honda struggled for playing time at the start of this season under Milan’s first-year coach Sinisa Mihajlovic but he has now become a fixture in the lineup at his new position.
“In the summer (Mihajlovic) positioned me behind the forwards and physically I felt fine but he wasn’t satisfied by my performance,” Honda said. “No player is happy when they’re on the bench but this, too, was a precious experience. I haven’t spent much time on the bench in my career and now I know how players feel when they’re not playing.”
Honda has scored only one goal in 25 Serie A appearances this season.
“I should score more,” he said. “In Italy the strikers are individualistic.”
With Milan struggling in sixth place, Honda and the Rossoneri host Serie A leader Juventus on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Honda said he has 110 people working for him at 60 football schools in Japan, with 80 coaches and 3,000 kids between the ages of 4 and 16.
“We would like to expand into Thailand, China, Cambodia, Vietnam and even the United States,” Honda said.
Honda also said he owns a third-division club in Austria.
Asian Cup roundup: UAE upsets defending champs, Iraq into semis
United Arab Emirates and Iraq both advanced to the semifinals on penalties, with the former providing the first true shocking result of the tournament thus far.
Japan was on the receiving end of the upset after Shinji Kagawa blasted the left upright with his penalty, allowing defender Ismail Ahmed to power home his penalty and send UAE to its first semifinal appearance since 1996.
The upset nearly happened in regulation as Al Jazira striker Ali Ahmed Mabkhout scored his fourth goal of the tournament inside 10 minutes – the first goal Japan has conceded all tournament – and it took Japan all the way until the 81st minute before they produced a deserved equalizer from substitute Gaku Shibasaki to reward a better second half and send things into extra time.
Kagawa nearly had a winner late on in regulation, but he put one wide at the stroke of the final whistle, minutes after hitting over the bar on a Keisuke Honda free-kick. After a listless extra 30 minutes, it went to penalties, where each team collected four of its first five, with Honda and Khamis Esmaeel each lifting their strikes above the crossbar. Then Kagawa missed in the first of sudden death, allowing UAE to score the clincher. Yes, that means the two missed Japanese penalties came from the country’s most well-known stars, Kagawa and Honda – puzzling to say the least.
Iraq also earned a surprising spot in the semifinals, topping Iran on penalties as well by a 7-6 score. The Lions are just one of two former champions remaining, alongside South Korea who won back in 1960.
Iran was down a man after they lost Mehrdad Pooladi when referee Ben Williams harshly sent him off. The referee had initially booked Pooladi for a theatrical dive after being shoved by Iraq goalkeeper Halal Hassan Hachim, before a host of Iraqi players reminded him that he had previously booked Pooladi for an earlier challenge in the first half. The referee then was forced to produce the red, sending Pooladi off for his second yellow.
But that would not stop Iran from making the game a memorable one. Into extra time with a 1-1 score after 90 minutes, Iraq twice took the lead, but Iran twice equalized, forcing penalties. Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud, who missed a Panenka penalty just days ago, did it again in the shootout when a miss would have eliminated his side, and scored it to add to the game’s already ballooning highlight reel. Iraq defender Salam Shakir later would bag the winner, and send the 2007 champions into the semifinals once again.
The draw for the quarterfinal stage is now complete as Japan will face the United Arab Emirates in Sydney on Friday, as Iraq will play Iran in Canberra.
In the other quarterfinals, hosts Australia play China in Brisbane on Thursday, while Korea and Uzbekistan square off in Melbroune on the same day. Let’s sweep up the last two group games of the 2015 tournament which took place on Tuesday.
Japan 2-0 Jordan
Keisuke Honda scored for the third game running as reigning champs Japan eased into the knockout stages with their third-straight win. Shinji Kagawa put the win beyond doubt in Melbourne in front of a packed crowd, as Japan now face the UAE in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Iraq 2-0 Palestine
Younis Mahmoud and Ahmed Yaseen scored for Iraq as they booked their ticket in the last eight of the tournament against already eliminated Palestine. The 2007 champions reached the quarterfinals in 2011 and will be looking to overcome neighbors Iran to make the last four.
Full quarterfinal schedule
South Korea vs. Uzbekistan – Melbourne, 3:30 a.m. ET
China vs. Australia – Brisbane, 6:30 a.m. ET
Iran vs. Iraq – Canberra, 2:30 a.m. ET
Japan vs. UAE – Sydney, 5:30 a.m. ET