When Andres Iniesta announced last year he would be leaving Barcelona after 22 years, he did so with tears in his eyes. He wasn’t the only one moved by the decision.
“How can we continue winning without Iniesta?” team president Josep Maria Bartomeu wondered months later when training camp open.
Turns out both have done just fine. Barcelona is on track to win its fourth Spanish championship in five years while Iniesta has begun preseason preparations for his first full season with Japanese club Vissel Kobe, which reportedly gave him the richest contract in J-League history.
Those preparations include five exhibitions with MLS and USL clubs in Southern California, starting with Monday’s matchup with the Columbus Crew at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
“I like to go to the United States, even if it's winter,” Iniesta, 34, said before leaving Kobe, a port city about 250 miles from Tokyo, for Orange County. “We will have the ideal conditions to be able to work well. The trip is a bit long, but hey, it's worth it.
“It will be interesting to check our level playing against teams from the MLS.”
Vissel, which arrived in Southern California on Thursday, will also play the Los Angeles Football Club on Jan. 31 in Los Angeles; Toronto FC (Feb. 2) and the second-division Orange County Soccer Club (Feb. 5) in Irvine; and the Galaxy in a closed-door scrimmage at a site to be determined.
Vissel finished 10th in the 18-team J-League last year, losing more games than it won despite Iniesta’s arrival in July. But last month the club added David Villa, Iniesta’s former teammate with Barcelona, who also played with him on Spain’s World Cup championship team in 2010. In Kobe they joined another World Cup winner in captain Lukas Podolski, who won with Germany in 2014.
“It’s one of the most exciting aspects of this season,” Iniesta said of his reunion with Villa, 37, Spain’s all-time leading scorer who spent the last four years with New York City FC, where he won an MLS MVP award. “We have shared many things, both in Barcelona and the Spanish national team. It motivates me a lot to play with him again, apart from being able to share the experience in Japan with him and his family.”
The signings mark a significant gamble for Vissel’s deep-pocketed owner Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce giant that bought the franchise in 2015, then put its name on Barcelona's jersey two years later in a four-year deal worth more than $230 million. Vissel has never finished higher than seventh in Japan’s first-division league, something the acquisition of the two Spanish players is supposed to change.