The architect in Yokohama

It’s a great moment for Yokohama in football. After last year and before COVID-19 delayed the 2020 season, the city had a lot to celebrate: Yokohama F. Marinos won the J1 title after 15 years of drought, playing one of the most entertaining brand of football J. League has ever witnessed. Meanwhile, Yokohama FC partially got rid of their aging superstars by finally injecting some youth in the roster. It worked, since Matsuo, both Saito, Nakayama and others have been thrilling to watch in 2019.

Both Ange Postecoglou and Takahiro Shimotaira have done an excellent job. If the first one had one year to experiment and fix every problem who showed up along the way, the second came in mid-season and burst through the table to conquer a well-deserved promotion. And in doing so, Yokohama can now enjoy the status of main city in the Japanese football, more than Tokyo or Osaka.

But there’s also another reason why Yokohama can be proud in football. You might not know that if you don’t follow closely J3, but there’s another team in town. Yokohama Sports & Culture Club have been around since 1986, although they previously went under the name “Yokohama Soccer & Culture Club” (until 2002): it took them some time, but they finally reached pro-football in 2014, being one of the original clubs to take part in J3 League.

And just like this club, the manager has a unique story: half German, half Japanese, he’s been the talk of the town in 2019. He was relatively unknown when he was hired, but he made his way through and bring YSCC to their best season ever, playing a fun brand of football and, most of all, standing tall on the pitch compared to their big brothers. Yuki Stalph is the man who’s been behind this solid growth.

We took the chance during this quarantine to talk to Stalph himself, who was kind enough to grant us some time and answer to a few questions. What came out was hugely satisfying, because it depicts the answer to two bigger questions: how is it the daily life of a head coach in J3? And how is it to live in Japan being half-Japanese, but also a cultural product of a Western mentality?

Take a look and enjoy this chat, which took place in April.

  • You’re half German, half Japanese. As far as I’ve read, you lived in both countries in different times of your life. As a person who has been living in Munich for almost two years and loves the Japanese mentality, I found myself thinking that German and Japanese mentalities have some points of contact. Since you bring with yourself both sides, do you see some resemblances? And how it was to live and grow in these two countries?

I was born in Germany and raised in Japan mainly. I agree with you that both cultures have some similarities. Both German and Japanese are quite “serious” personalities and value to be on time, for example. I think that both have also the culture of “mastering things”, as you can see in the German “Meister” education culture and Japanese “Shugyō” culture. There are big differences as well, though.

While Japan is very group-minded and values collectivity and harmony over everything else, Germany has a more individual approach and values straight-forwardness and honesty over the overall harmony in a group. This is quite funny, but I feel more Japanese in a Western culture and more German in the Japanese environment. Both countries have excellent values, tradition and history and I really try my best to pick the best out of both worlds for my own personal and business life.

  • Your career started in Switzerland, but you have played in a lot of different countries. You’ve experienced four different continents, even featuring for Hekari United and for a small team in Harrisburg. Which kind of memory do you have of your career? And travelling a lot helped you in expanding your horizons?

I know, my career is very unique. When I realized that my talent wasn’t good enough to reach the top level of European Football, I decided to combine my two passions football and traveling to enrich my personal experience and expand my horizons, to use your words.

Already as a kid, my dream was to become a professional coach and being a professional player was more or less just a path I wanted to go through before achieving my coaching goal. I wanted to see as much football from different angles, countries and continents. Unfortunately, I did not manage to sign a contract in South America, where football is huge as well, but luckily I had a chance to work with SC International in Brazil in 2018 to get a little bit of insight into the Brazilian world of football.

Every stop of my career was filled with a lot of challenges. Especially the challenge to acclimatize, the challenge to settle, the challenge to make friends and ultimately survive as a foreign player and all of this: the whole process is treasured in my memory.

The biggest lesson I took out of my country-hopping football career is to adopt and value culture. Being half German and half Japanese at the same time, I am kind of a born cultural chameleon anyway, but my football career even enforced this part in myself. I like to listen to local people and seize their culture and see how it reflects on their football – because believe me or not, there is always a connection in it.

A dated picture about YSCC fans going to Okinawa to watch the game between their heroes and FC Ryukyu. Long way to go, but that’s pure passion.
  • You retired at 30 years old. You had time to think about your future and you opted to remain in this world as a coach. Which elements pushed you towards that decision? And how the YSSC approached you in 2018 to pitch you the idea of coaching their team?

As I mentioned before, I was very clear about becoming a coach at a very young age already; the question was just the timing. To be honest, when I left my last German club at the age of 30, my plan was to find a good team in South East Asia or Japan to play a couple of more years before finishing my active career as a player. Unfortunately, things did not go according to my plans and I did not find a club that was matching my expectations.

It was when I was reflecting about whether I should continue to search for a new place or starting my coaching career that the CEO of Tokyo Verdy gave me an opportunity to start as a coach. I thought about it a little more and accepted the offer. After Tokyo Verdy, I worked for three years with the Belgian company “double pass”: we assessed all J. League academies and gave educational services as well as individual club consultations.

The first contact with YSCC was around October 2018 when I remember correctly. I was in the middle of my last pro license module when I met our president Mr. Jiro Yoshino – who happened to be my U-18 coach back in the days. I was told that the manager will quit after the season and how my future plans look like.

I was really interested in coaching this club, so it was myself who then actually gave a pitch about this position. I prepared a full season evaluation based on video and data and presented my idea on how to improve the team and bring them to the next level. Luckily, Mr. Yoshino liked my presentation and decided to give me a shot two months later.

  • Japanese football world is expanding. In 25 years, we have now almost 60 pro-teams and the scenario is growing even more. The Kanto area is full of teams and Yokohama is now living something that rarely happened, which is having two teams in J1. How can a club like YSCC – with a small budget, in a division that should be covered much more by the Japanese media – try to find its spot in Japan’s football map?

First of all, I believe that football is a very diverse sport that can be enjoyed in multiple ways. You can play it, you can coach it – like I do today – you can watch it, support it or write about it, like you do. That is why I would like YSCC to co-exist with our two bigger brothers in the city.

YSCC cannot offer football in the same quality that Yokohama Marinos is presenting it, neither we have the budget to acquire legendary players like King Kazu or Nakamura, who might bring glamour to the club. We have our sweet side as well though and we can show refreshing young attacking football from “local boys around the corner”. That is why I value Yokohama-born or raised players a lot.

If they have played in our academy or second team before, even better. We try to stay more connected and closer to our supporters and academy players then big stars from Yokohama Marinos or Yokohama FC can ever do. For example, we have the tradition of our “Omiokuri-kai” – the “We-say-good-bye-gathering” –, where all players come out to the place in front of the stadium to greet our supporters after the game.

Last year, some of our players organized the “J-Meshi” – which means the “J-Dinner” – to spend some time together with supporters after the game and enjoying dinner together. I like this familiar atmosphere, where people can mingle and talk about football. This is culture for me and it’s different from our two bigger brothers. I believe that with the help of the media, this familiar atmosphere will help us survive in the long term as well.

Professionally, we need to keep developing good young players of course and try to make some revenue from it. I have also the idea to develop young players for our big brothers when they do not get enough playing time in their clubs. That is why we have Issei Ouchi and Ryotaro Yamamoto this year in our roster. Both come from Yokohama FC and are very talented young players. Hopefully, they will grow in our club and shine when they go back or step up in higher divisions.

  • In 2019, your brand of football was among the most entertaining in J3. Your predecessor, Yasuhiro Higuchi, obtained a decent amount of results, but YSCC became fun to watch last year. YSCC had the worst defense of the league, but also the 3rd best attack, scoring more goals than 2019 J3 champions Giravanz Kitakyushu and achieving good results against direct rivals in the table. YSCC even featured two players in the Top 6 of the goal scoring chart – Kohei Shin scored 15 goals, Hayato Asakawa 13 – and achieved their best result in their six years-journey in J3. Could you walk us through your idea of football and why in the end it worked so well for a team that mostly occupied the last places of the table in the previous seasons?

First of all, thank you very much for complementing our style of play. Before the season, we had set around 11 KPIs that we wanted to achieve all together: we ended up achieving 70% of it, so we analyze the past season as well as partially successful.

We were expecting a really tough season at the beginning, because many key players under Mr. Higuchi had left or retired at the end of 2018. When I played my first league match against Tottori on March 10th, I think I had like four-five debutants if I remember correctly. I had good players, but we lacked experience.

That said, I am really happy with the overall results we’ve achieved and I have to thank and congratulate my players for their outstanding performance throughout the year. Also Mr. Higuchi, my predecessor, has a big part of it of course as well, as all the staff behind the team. We are not honored about having conceded the most goals in the league of course, but our attack was quite well organized I believe.

We chose this attacking way of playing soccer, because we need more spectacular plays to entertain our supporters and bring them back to our stadium. If we played boring, why would you come and watch us instead of spectacular Marinos or glamorous Yokohama FC?

My idea of football is simple: I want to achieve the best results while respecting the club’s culture. To achieve the best results, I try to find a way that puts the players in a situation where they can show off their strengths as much as possible instead of their weakness. The players in our division have really good qualities as well, but they are not as perfect as players of higher divisions yet. We need to hide their pit holes and focus on their strengths during the games, while we try to help them improve overall in our training.

Having two talented strikers and a genius number 10, it was clear to me to build my team concept around this attacking trio. The club’s culture is dominant and that is also Mr. Yoshino’s and our academy idea: they like to possess the ball and play out from the back. Since I had four debutants in the goalkeeping position and only two experienced defenders (one of them was a long term injury), I tried to increase possession (I think we finished second) and reduce the time we have to defend.

I put midfield profiles like captain Miyao or sometimes Dodate in the last line and they tried their best. Unfortunately, we still gave away too many easy goals and that is mainly why we could not finish in the Top 10, as we had aimed for. This season, we will surely improve on this aspect as well and try to reorganize our attack in a similar quality than last year, since most key-players of our attack has left the club again.

This was recorded on February 24th, 2020, the weekend when J1 & J2 began. Two more weeks and J3 would have started.
  • In 2020, it won’t be easy to repeat those results. Besides the COVID-emergency – which delayed the start of J3 League -, YSCC lost four important players in their roster. Okuda and Kawano signed for Mito, Shin joined Thespakusatsu Gunma and Asakawa will play again in J3, but this time with Roasso Kumamoto. Which goals does the team hold for this season? And would you recommend a name to watch in your team, that maybe could rise through the ranks in 2020? I’d say Diego Taba, but you know better for sure.

You said it: it will not be easy for us to repeat these results of last year… but we want actually more! We want to finish Top 10, that is our biggest goal. We have 14 other smaller targets to reach as well, but we might need to adjust the numbers a little depending on the format that the league will provide us in this COVID-emergency.

It hurts us big time that with Okuda, Kawano, Shin and Asakawa – four key-players who combined 35 goals – have left the club. At the same time, though, I am very proud of them and happy that three of them have reached the second division; Asakawa is also in an ambitious club with chances of promotion this year.

When it comes to individual recommendation, I am not the type of coach who gives you individual names to look for, but I can guarantee that you will see new diamonds shine this year again. Diego Taba was unlucky to tear his ACL in the preseason, but he will come back stronger as well!

Paul Graham said once: “Architects know that some kinds of design problems are more personal than others. One of the cleanest, most abstract design problems is designing bridges. There your job is largely a matter of spanning a given distance with the least material”. Isn’t what many coaches try to do in their careers? It’s the job’s main trait in the end, because not everyone gets great or solid resources from the start.

You have to work your way through it and Yuki Stalph is doing it. There’s surely more that he’d like to accomplish and we hope for him to achieve it, but he had to follow Graham’s take on the issue. And as you may have read, it’s not easy to do that, especially in small realities where you have to be creative to come at the top. But in a scenario like the one in Japanese football, it is indeed possible.

Yet, YSCC just lived the best season in their history and you’d say it won’t be easy to see them thriving without some key-players. But when all Philadelphia was chanting “Trust the process” in the wake of Sam Hinkie’s bizarre analytics-related dream, someone has said the same about the 76ers. And look now: yes, NBA is a world of its own, but it is possible to do more with less and YSCC is a good example of that, despite being in an already crowded market like Yokohama or Kanto in general.

In a certain way, what is a bridge? It’s a path to the future, a concept or a desire. All these needs are fueling the experience of many of us everyday and this isn’t any different for the people involved in football, especially when you’re not on the pitch. There are several architects in Yokohama for this season and we’re really curious to understand if Stalph and YSCC will be able to do the magic again in 2020.

J. League Regista wants to thank Mr. Stalph for the time he spent with us and we hope to have other chats with people inside the Japanese football world. In the end, the bigger the narration is about J. League, the better are the chances of seeing this league thriving all over the world. Thanks again to Mr. Stalph and good luck to him and YSCC for the 2020 season.

4 thoughts on “The architect in Yokohama

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