In doing a preview of the season, we are going to break it down into bite-sized, regional chunks. We are starting from the north and are going to work all the way down, giving a brief preview of each club in Japan’s top three divisions, their aspirations, and a player to look out for. The first one looks at Hokkaido & Tohoku – the north/north east of the country.
If we are starting in the north, then we absolutely have to start with Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo…..
- Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo
- Stadium: Sapporo Dome
- Last year: J2 Champions
What to expect in 2017: A struggle. Despite Consa being champions last year, they are the team that I would expect to be favourites for relegation. Whilst they have managed to keep hold of in-demand goalkeeper Gu Sung Yun, their overall squad looks like it lacks a bit of depth. I would have liked them to have signed a productive striker to help Ken Tokura, but as it is it looks like the larger-than-life character will be counted on to supply the goals.
Key man: Gu Sung Yun. The Korean goalkeeper figures to be busy this year. He was excellent last year, but the level of striker will be a class above what he faced last year. If he plays well, Sapporo will have a fighting chance of staying up.
- Grulla Morioka
- Last year: 13th in J3
What to expect in 2017: An effort to strengthen their J3 credentials. Morioka were struggling throughout all of last season, and a start that included no win in their first nine games didn’t help, but they got it together in summer and finished the season with just one defeat from their final six games, and that was against champions Oita.
Key player: Ryota Iwabuchi. The loss of star player Taku Ushinohama to Tochigi SC opens up a gaping need for someone to replace his goals & attacking instincts. One player who might be up to this task is new signing Iwabuchi who arrives from fellow J3 side SC Sagamihara. He was used as a utility player in Sagamihara, but he probably best used as a midfielder with license to go forward. To move away from the foot of the table, they’ll need Iwabuchi to step right in where Ushinohama left off.
- Blaublitz Akita
- Stadium: Akigin Stadium
- Last year: 4th in J3
What to expect in 2017: I think it will be difficult for them to improve on their 4th place finish of 2016, because that would mean a probably promotion push and I’m not sure they’re quite at that point yet. They did really well to finish fourth last year, and if they are to replicate that performance, ex-FC Gifu & Gainare Tottori striker Tomohiro Tanaka will once again have to lead their line well – he scored 8 goals in 24 games last year and will look to improve on that tally.
Key player: Kyohei Maeyama. The long serving veteran has spent all of his pro career in Akita, and the 29 year old played a key role last year as Akita surged to a fourth place finish. He scored four goals from midfield, and while that wasn’t as good as his exceptional 2015 season (10 goals), he was still a key component of Akita’s attacking set-up. Not only his goals, but his link up play (he created over 30 chances last year) and his natural attacking instincts will likely be valuable again in 2017.
- Vegalta Sendai
- Stadium: Yurtec Stadium
- Last year: 12th in
What to expect in 2017: Difficult to say. On the face of it, losing both Wilson & Ramon Lopes would seem to hit them quite hard. North Korean midfielder Ryang Yong Gi showed signs of slowing down at age 34, and we could see a changing of the guard in goal as the impressive Daniel Schmidt returns from his loan spell at Matsumoto Yamaga. On a positive note, the signing of forward Naoki Ishihara looks like a shrewd bit of business, while Hirotaka Mita showed glimpses of being a good player to build around. All around though, this squad poses more questions than it answers.
Key player: Crislan. This winter, Vegalta lost their twin Brazilian strike force of Wilson (who surprisingly moved to Ventforet Kofu) and Ramon Lopes (who moved to Kashiwa Reysol) and so their chances of staying out of a relegation battle will hinge on how their goals/forward play is replaced. They also brought in Sota Hirayama and Naoki Ishihara, but Sendai will need a bit of X-factor from their new Brazilian import.
- Montedio Yamagata
- Stadium: ND Soft Stadium
- Last year: 14th in J2
What to expect in 2017: Better than last year. Montedio were a shadow of what was expected of them in 2016. A flirt with relegation was avoided, but they had a clean out over the winter and people should expect them to be better this year. They made one of the …… managerial appointments of the winter in Takashi Kiyama, the manager who did good things at Ehime FC, and he should get them a lot more organized.
Key player: Masato Nakayama. “Key” player might be stretching it a bit, but he is an interesting signing. He led Renofa Yamaguchi’s goalscoring charts last year, and has stepped up in his previous two seasons (10 goals for Tottori in 2015, 11 for Renofa in 2016). He seems like the kind of player that Kiyama would make better, and I think he’ll do well in Yamagata.
- Fukushima United
- Stadium: Touhou Minna no Stadium
- Last year: 14th in J3
What to expect in 2017: An attempt to claw their way into mid-table. They finished a really disappointing 14th, below both of their Tohoku rivals, and that probably won’t be tolerated again.
Key player: Hiroki Higuchi. The forward scored nine times for Fukushima last year, and the ex-S-Pulse, FC Gifu & Sagamihara forward will be relied upon again in 2017.