Often neutral fans looking over J. League tend to think that the first division is the main plate. We would highly disagree for a simple reason: Japan isn’t a long-existing powerhouse in club football, so it’s something new, that can (and we say, must) be discovered, because in the third tier you can find the tomorrow of Japanese football, with realities that might be in the conversation within five years.
In our view, J1 and J2 were the appetizer and J3 was the main dish. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 epidemic delayed the beginning of the season – initially set for March 7th – and only now we’re getting our fair share of J3 games. J. League Cup is still here, but FC Tokyo U-23 withdrew from the season, calling the day earlier for the already scheduled retirement of U-23 from the next season.
If the two squads of Osaka have for now confirmed their commitment to J3 (maybe because of the huge development that youngsters had over the last two years), the 2020 season has a lot of topics to propose: the debut of FC Imabari, the return to J3 of Kagoshima United FC just after one year in J2 and another excellent debut in the league, the one concerning FC Gifu.
Mix all of this with other stories – some realities will try the jump back to J2, just like Thespakusatsu Gunma and Giravanz Kitakyushu made in 2019 – and there you have a pretty rich plate. J. League Regista picked not the 10 best transfers in terms of interest (leaving it one aside). For different reasons, some teams opted for these moves and it’ll be curious to see how these signings will adapt to their new situations. Let’s roll!
10. Daisuke Sakai – from Oita Trinita to Gainare Tottori
It’s incredible how he’s still 23 years-old, despite all the hype that initially accompanied him. Called up for the Japanese selection in the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup – where he actually played all the matches and scored against Tunisia –, the former Oita Trinita youngster didn’t follow through with his huge premises. In a squad where you had also Kento Misao, Koji Miyoshi and Taro Sugimoto, he has easily come short seven years later.
He stayed a while in Oita, but despite the vortex of events happening with Trinita – they come down from J1, then they got relegated to J3 and got immediately back –, Sakai never found any space. Not even in J3, where he played just 11 league games, before getting loaned anywhere: Albirex Niigata, a Belgian second tier club, Thespakusatsu Gunma and even J. League U-22.
Nothing worked, but Tottori might be his last chance: Sakai is still owned by Oita, but you wonder how much they’ll wait for him to bloom. Meanwhile, Gainare definitely need some spark offensively, since Fernandinho isn’t becoming any younger, Vitor Gabriel and Hayashi are gone, and the club badly necessitate some offensive talent. Will it work? Tough to say, given that Sakai featured just five times in the last J3 season.
09. Hiroki Todaka – from Machida Zelvia to Kataller Toyama
Strange tale to tell. Todaka was deeply hit by injuries, but then he found some space in 2017 and Machida had an amazing run even at a possible promotion in the successive season. When in 2019 we expected him to come forward and confirm those progresses, he partially did, but the squad plunged in performances. With Soma saying goodbye, Zelvia thought to salute as well his no. 32.
A former Oita Trinita kid (again: great youth ranks there), Todaka has stayed with Machida for all his six pro-seasons. He has already played in J3, where he stunned everyone in his rookie year, scoring five goals in 27 matches. He has it, but there are two questions: a) will he able to stay healthy to give Kataller another offensive option? b) will he find his groove back? If the answer is “yes”, Toyama might have a bargain on their hands.
08. Masamichi Hayashi – from Gainare Tottori to FC Imabari
Here’s another underrated story. Masamichi Hayashi has played only for Gainare Tottori in his career, arriving just one year after their relegation to J3. The club never seemed capable of going back up, although they had a couple of decent seasons throughout these last years. Unfortunately for the club, Hayashi bloomed in the last year and probably looked around to understand if there was a better gig to be a part of.
FC Imabari is a risk, but a calculated one: the club is solid, guided by capable hands (former national team head coach Takeshi Okada is the president) and they’ll look to spark the league a little, given that they got rid of Takeshi Ono after the promotion and hired Spanish Lluís Planagumà, coming from some stints in the minor leagues in his home country.
The club is financially solid, they had their fair share of experience in the roster and certainly some players might flourish in the passage from JFL to the pro-world. But they lacked indeed an exciting player, wanting to grow as much as the club: Hayashi is the right profile. He scored just once in four years from 2015 to 2018, but in 2019 he collected 11 goals and won the MVP Award in October.
07. Hiroyuki Takasaki – from Matsumoto Yamaga to FC Gifu
FC Gifu suffered a tough relegation last year: changing manager and a good part of the squad during the last Summer didn’t bring the expected results. So the club will face J3 for their first time-ever, while they won’t feature in J2 for the first time since 2007. To put it in context: Kazu Miura had just turn 40, Akira Nishino was still rollin’ with Gamba Osaka and Matsumoto Yamaga were playing regional football.
To reboot the roster, Gifu opted to sign some experienced players, in the hope of coming back to J2 as soon as possible (although it won’t be the easiest task of the world). That’s where Hiroyuki Takasaki comes in play: his score of 68 goals in J2 – plus 10 in J1 – should be a solid point to start from. Takasaki never played under J2, but he might find the rhythm pretty fast and he’ll certainly want to avenge his score from last year (zero goals scored).
06. Naoki Sanda – from Vanraure Hachinohe to Nagano Parceiro
Nagano Parceiro could be comparable to a sock: they were basically turn upside down in the attempt of finding the right roster to FINALLY achieve what we’re expecting from them from a long time. Promotion to J2. That’s what they’ve been up to since that promotion/relegation play-offs lost against Kamatamare Sanuki in 2014, but they’ve never even gone close to that result.
In 2019, Nagano classified ninth and they acquired several solid players for J3. Among them, Naoki Sanda is the most interesting: not only for the four goals scored in just one game last year against Kamatamare Sanuki, but most of all because he embodies the right profile for Nagano. Sanda climbed the whole pyramid of Japanese football, starting in Aomori, then playing two JFL seasons with FC Imabari and finally achieving double digit of goals with a surprising side like Vanraure Hachinohe.
If Fujinuma, Sano, Hirose and Oka might serve a larger purpose in the promotion run, Sanda will definitely be a key-asset to achieve that goal.
05. João Gabriel – from SC Sagamihara to Kagoshima United FC
Last Summer, we guess we were all pretty stunned to see João Gabriel coming down from J3 League to Kantō Soccer League, just to play six months on loan for Tochigi City FC. And if this side hasn’t even come close to promotion, SC Sagamihara probably suffered the lack of goals, despite Tsugutoshi Oishi played a solid season. Instead, for 2020, Sagamihara opted to got rid of both them.
If Oishi has come back to a former love (Fujieda MYFC), João Gabriel has moved South, joining Kagoshima United FC. This might be a strange marriage, but it has a lot of potential: the Brazilian striker is clearly fit to be an asset in the third division, given the 28 goals scored in two and a half years in Sagamihara. On the other side, if Kagoshima went down from J2, the reason might be found on the lack of goals in 2019: beside Han Yong-thae (who scored 11 goals), no one else really contributed.
Kagoshima had the fifth-worst attack in 2019 J2 League and if they’ll want to achieve promotion, they’ll definitely need some goals.
04. Junya Suzuki – from Fujieda MYFC to Blaublitz Akita
One of the underdogs from last season came from Fujieda, where Junya Suzuki calmly entered the roster to result one of the key-members of Ishizaki’s troop of wonders. After attending Waseda University, Suzuki ended up in Germany, where he briefly played for VfR Aalen. If the German club got relegated from 3. Liga, the defender jumped the ship and joined Fujieda in the Winter.
It was a wise choice: MYFC needed a player like this, Suzuki is a creative defensive regista and his ability on free kicks must be appreciated. He scored three goals and served four assists, assets that can be useful throughout a long season. Blaublitz Akita had a decent run in the final part of the 2019 season and needed some improvements: they’ve always been a solid J3 team. Who knows: is it going to be their year again?
03. Kaito Taniguchi – from Iwate Grulla Morioka to Roasso Kumamoto
If Kagoshima and Gifu will have a hard time going back to J2, we think the reason might lie in two different teams. The first is Roasso Kumamoto: after finding back the support of their crowd – last year, Roasso broke Giravanz Kitakyushu’s record for the biggest crowd in a J3 match –, the club must find back their groove also on the pitch. In 2019, they struggled in the final third of the season and ended fifth.
They can and they have to do better. Kyushu is full of teams and realities, but Kumamoto has a solid base to work with. Hiroki Shibuya has left and now Takeshi Oki is on duty, after the solid job he has done with Gifu. But the change didn’t come just on the bench, since a couple of exciting players joined the club: if one is Hayato Asakawa and he must be tested to avoid a “second year-syndrome”, Kaito Taniguchi has already overcome that.
Despite his sophomore season hasn’t been as bright as the first one (15 goals in 2018, nine in 2019), you have also to consider that Grulla were worst last year than the season before. With an exciting offensive system, Taniguchi might confirm his improvements and bring Roasso back to J2, which would be a massive task to bring home. After 24 goals in J3, he might also be on his way to the Top 5 of the all-time goalscoring list.
02. Victor – from FC Gifu to SC Sagamihara
This might seem a minor switch, but keepers are more important than you might think in J3. Shun Yoshida made the jump from Thespakusatsu Gunma directly to Oita Trinita and Yokohama F. Marinos relied on the former captain of the J3 champions, FC Ryukyu, to win the title (we’re talking about Park Iru-gyu). Beside them, you have several good keepers in J3: Yudai Tanaka, Nobuyuki Abe, Daiki Hotta (who moved to Shonan Bellmare) and Kaito Yamamoto.
Víctor Ibáñez enjoyed an undisputed no. 1 spot in Gifu for two years, until last year he had to fight with Jan-Ole Sievers to retain his post. It didn’t work well and, instead of staying, the Spanish goalkeeper moved to Sagamihara, where he’ll be the no. 1 after the goodbye of Yudai Tanaka (who joined Blaublitz). Sagamihara deeply need to improve their results from 2019: having a solid keeper is a first step.
01. Hayate Take – from Fukushima United FC to Kataller Toyama
We think this move isn’t just the best one, but it might be the most significant one in the equilibrium of J3. Kataller Toyama ended 2019 with a nice run and snatched four place on the final part of the season, but they had a rough patch in the first part. They needed more solid J. Leaguers and they’ve done their work in the last Winter, bringing in Matsubara from Nagano, Todaka from Machida and confirming Usui from V-Varen.
Unfortunately, Ryo Adachi lost also Saito, Maejima, Shiraishi and Takuya Kokeguchi. Signing Take, though, won’t only replace the no. 9 shirt after the departure of a historical player for Kataller, but grant themselves a decent number of goals to face a solid chance of going back to J2 after six seasons in the third tier. Take scored 25 goals in two years and having done it with Fukushima United FC gives even more value to the achievement.
His contribution will definitely be helpful and may even launch him to a better future, in J2 or even higher, since the striker definitely proved to be efficient in front of goal. If he’ll bring Toyama back to second division, who knows what the future might hold for this promising striker.