Kanagawa prefecture, to the south west of Tokyo, includes Yokohama, but because I’ve already done a separate preview for those clubs situated in the administrative hub of the prefecture, this preview will focus on the other three clubs in the area, and those clubs are spread out over Japan’s three divisions.
(image: Kawasaki Frontale website)
- Kawasaki Frontale
- Stadium: Todoroki
- Last year: 3rd in J1
What to expect in 2017: More of the same. For most neutrals, Kawasaki Frontale are great to watch, but if you are a supporter it must be infuriating to see your team come so close all the time, but never come away with the main prize. A 2nd/3rd place finish last year (depending on how you read the league table – bloody two stage…..) was based on their attacking sharpness. Yoshito Okubo (more on him later) & Yu Kobayashi both hit 15 goals, while evergreen club captain Kengo Nakamura weighed in with nine.
Yahiro Kazama produced a vibrant attacking side, but a side with glaring weakness in defence. Their 39 goals conceded was only the joint seventh best defence. Kazama has gone, leaving for Nagoya’s reclamation project and so new manager Toru Oniki, who has spent most of his professional career in Kawasaki, and was Kazama’s top team coach, must address this weakness if Frontale are to bring home silverware. Their lone defensive reinforcement has been Michael James from Albirex Niigata, a good defender but not enough to change the defence from an average one into a good one.
As usual for Kawasaki, it is further forward where you get the excitement. Headlining their list of newcomers is Akihiro Ienaga from Omiya Ardija. Ienaga had a really good last couple of years at NACK 5 – firstly leading them back to J1 after their relegation in 2014, and then leading their line in the impressive return season last time out. What is interesting is that he performed better in J1 than he did in J2. He’s a big game player, and one that will give Kawasaki a different attacking dimension. Frontale’s customary Brazilian forward this year is Rhayner, who joins from Ponte Preta in his homeland. One signing that has flown a little under the radar but could turn out to be very good is the signing of Gamba Osaka midfielder Hiroyuki Abe. I’ve always admired his workrate, and if Kawasaki are looking to move Yu Kobayashi from a wide berth into a more central role, then putting Abe in Kobayashi’s spot makes a ton of sense.
(Just as I was about to publish this piece, news came through of a pretty serious injury to Brazilian defender Elsinho. He’ll be out for up to three months)
Key player: Yu Kobayashi. It feels a bit too obvious, but with the departure of Okubo, the opportunity is there for Kobayashi to step into the limelight for real. Last season was statistically his most productive with double digit goals & assists and there is room for growth. Often played slightly to the side of Okubo, Okubo’s departure opens the way for Kobayashi to take on a more central role. I always think of him as young for some reason, but he isn’t – he turns 30 this year and it remains to be seen whether he can produce the same sort of production sans Okubo.
- Shonan Bellmare
- Stadium: BMW Stadium Hiratsuka
- Last year: 17th in J1
What to expect in 2017: A promotion push. Shonan are the typical yo-yo club. Seemingly always being a bit too good for J2, but just not good enough to stick around in J1, it seems likely that well respected manager Cho Kwi-jae will be able to mastermind a strong promotion push.
J2 supporters (yes, they are a real thing) remember the last time that Shonan were in J2. They absolutely steamrollered the league that year, winning 22 of their first 23 games, basically securing promotion in July. That team was, in retrospect, a star studded team with the likes of Wataru Endo, Ryota Nagaki, Shohei Okada & Wellington. The 2017 incarnation of Shonan Bellmare doesn’t have that particular star quality, but it would be wrong to bet against the coaching powers of Cho.
They have a decent squad. Goalkeeper Yota Akimoto, who excelled in his last spell at Shonan returns after a year at FC Tokyo. If he can recapture the form he showed last time Bellmare were in J2, he will be an excellent addition. Genta Omotehara, their signing from Ehime, is an interesting one because he looked pretty good given limited opportunities last year, but he should be excited about the prospect of going to Shonan because Cho has built a reputation of developing these types of attackers – ones that comfortable playing behind a main striker or up top on their own. Still only 20, he’ll likely be used off the bench at first, but look for him to come on during the season. They’ll miss Daisuke Kikuchi who has moved to Urawa (a good player, but a strange move IMO) & I think they’ll also miss Yuto Misao, the versatile defender who has gone to champions Kashima and will hook up with his brother Kento there. They’ve done well to bring in Kashiwa Reysol holding midfielder Hiroki Akino – and I assume he will slot straight into the team protecting the defence while trying to build from the back. Finally, lots of people connected with Bellmare are very excited about the prospects of young midfielder Yuta Kamiya, who won’t turn 20 until April. He could be the next big thing to roll off Cho’s production line.
Key player: Kaoru Takayama. Cho’s teams are built on fluidity. He likes versatile players, and he likes his players to be intelligent enough to know when play needs to be sped up or slowed down. Kaoru Takayama is one such player. Trusted by Cho to play anywhere across the midfield, he brings instant and in game versatility in a way many players can’t. He really made his name as a winger, but has evolved into a more centrally located player and thus has more influence on the game. Don’t be surprised to see him become the playmaker this year.
(image: SC Sagamihara website)
- SC Sagamihara
- Stadium: Gion Stadium
- Last year: 11th in J3
What to expect in 2017: I’m not sure what to expect. Many J.League observers, including myself, always think that Sagamihara are on the brink of breaking out – in a not too dissimilar way lots of people feel about Okayama in J2. The profile is there, you’d think the population/catchment area is there…..but for some reason they always seem to tread water.
When you look at their squad, there has been a huge turnover of personnel with nineteen players having left since the end of the 2016 season. As for their current squad, Japanese goalkeeping legend Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi is still there, pushing on for 42 years old n0w. He’s joined at the back by two good new signings: Naoya Okane, the tall centre back from FC Gifu, and set-piece expert Shinji Tsujio, who left Zweigen Kanazawa in the winter.
Takuro kikuoka is an important part of what they do going forward. He can play anwhere in the final third but seems to play his best when operating in the hole. Up front, Yuichi Kubo comes in as a veteran presence, while Brazilian forward Joao Gabriel will look to be the Brazilian to take J3 by storm.
Key player: The aforementioned Takuro Kikuoka. He’s the creative spark in the team. Sagamihara need him to be on his game again this season.