J. League youth teams: a failed project? (Part 1)

The future belongs to the youth. The trend in football leans towards younger player who are traded by almost all clubs in hope to hold selling rights to the next football superstar in the making. Even young Japanese football players cannot escape that trend and, so apart from a few success stories, there are at least the same amount of disappointments with early returns from transfers overseas.

In our two-part series “J. League youth teams: A failed project?”, we don’t want to look at those transfers, but focus more on how the Japanese governing bodies of association football tried to raise the level of Japanese youth football. The closer we are to the end of the year, the sooner U-23 football will cease to exist in J3 League. We want to recap the youth development programs that were pushed by the J.League and try to understand which goal they had and if they reached it.

1. The J. Satellite League (1993-2009)

When the J.League started in 1993, the ten competing clubs not only had to apply to the club regulations for their first adult team, but also apply to maintain club-owned youth programs. The early demand of clubs to participate in the J.League was highly underestimated by the league, so with the establishment of the J. League Divison 2 in 1999 the obligatory youth club criteria was loosened.

After that trahshold, interested clubs were able to maintain a youth club system voluntarily, but in the league’s grass roots approach needed to show at least the ambition to build their own youth system in the near future. For the founding members of the J. League, however, the J. Satellite League started in 1993 – the same year of the inaugural J. League season.

Not only the ten reserve teams started in this competition, but the three soon-to-be J. League clubs – Kashiwa Reysol, Bellmare Hiratsuka and Jubilo Iwata – started their youth teams to bulk up for their soon step towards pro football. In front of mostly a couple of hundred, sometimes a few thousand fans, those youth teams competed in a two-robin round for the prestige to be the best reserve team of Japan’s professional football.

Shimizu S-Pulse vs. Ventforet Kofu in the 2008 J. League Satellite campaign.

In 1995, the competition started with 16 teams, including Vissel Kobe, Cerezo Osaka and Avispa Fukuoka, but all teams were to be split in four final groups after the regular season. One year after even more J. League prospects were allowed, namely Tosu Futures and Vegalta Sendai. But now the contest started in three regional groups so the best four could met in October in a playoffs tournament.

With several changes on participating teams (as a reserve team was not mandatory in J. League Divison 2), the three regional groups became the new standard in 1999. Yet, a final tournament appears to have been abolished at that point. In 2004 the Satellite league was expanded to four groups, in ’06 reached six groups.

Unfortunately for the instituion, the Satellite League was abolished after 17 years, when the 2009 season ended. The reserve teams probably participated in the regional Leagues (as JEF United’s reserve team was playing in the Japan Football League since 2006). Speaking of which, the void led to the Regional League federations to start their own reserve team tournaments:

  • Hokkaido FA started the Hokkaido Champions Super League in 2008, just to shut it down after two seasons. It was Hokkaido’s finest Consadole Sapporo who on their own organized a youth tournament called the Consadole Nighter League with local youth teams to participate. As far as research goes this tournament was held at least until 2014.
  • Miyazaki FA played out the Miyazaki Challenge League, but had to shut down the tournament after its inaugural season. Little more success had the Chugoku FA and Shikoku FA with their mutual Satellite League that lasted for two years. It hosted teams from respective and future J.League clubs but also two university teams. Kyushu FA started the Kyushu Challengers League in 2009 but since 2012 there was no tournament held.
  • The most ambitious regional Satellite League was pulled off by the Kansai FA. The “Kansai Step Up League” started in 2010 and was won twice by Cerezo Osaka and once by Vissel Kobe, Gamba Osaka and Kyoto Sanga each. After 2014 the League was abolished though the Student’s soccer federation of Kansai still cooperates with the Kansai teams to have annual games against these clubs.
Vissel Kobe played their best against the student team. The match ended 2-1 for the professional side.

On December 18th, 2015, the J. League announced the return of the J. Satellite League for 2016. To limit the extra expenses for those trips, the games were scheduled for the same day as their adult team matches. A total of eight reserve teams from J. League clubs were expected to participate in 17 matches, but as there was no courtesy it looks like that a big bunch of the matches after the summer break have been called off.

2017 saw the participating teams be reduced to four reserve teams from Vegalta Sendai, Shimizu S-Pulse, Albirex Niigata and Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Only one match had to be called off, but the lack of interest for this league led to its folding after the 2017 season. In 2018 the J. League held the J.League Development Match Day as a compensation contest.

Teams from Gainare Tottori, Renofa Yamaguchi, Fagiano Okayama and Sanfrecce Hiroshima participated in 2018, in 2019 Ehime FC and Tokushima Vortis were added, but because of the more regional nature of these Shikoku and Chugoku based teams the Development Match Day was abolished in the end.

If it wasn’t for the 2020 pandemic, the J. League intended to revive the Satellite league with around 20 reserve teams from J1 and J2 League clubs for players under the age of 21. Clubs denounced that idea but with a different rule-set the J. Elite League was to start in March 2020 with a total of 22 reserve clubs (four from Eastern Japan, six from Kansai, six from Chugoku and six from Kyushu/Okinawa).

It is hard to imagine what the J. Elite League would’ve looked like this year, but so far mostly the lack of interest led to an early end for any of those leagues. Yet the idea to start with 22 teams in a full-scale contest looks promising indeed. We will see if this project will be continued in the future, after many clubs have lost or will lose their financial securities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

JEF Reserves playing in the Japan Football League, in which they featured for several seasons.

2. The J.League U-22 Selection (2014-2015)

A special place in youth development holds the so called “J. League U-22 Selection” which participated in the newly founded J3 League in 2014 and 2015. The club’s existence was rooted in the idea to find a competitive team for the 2016 Brazil Olympics, yet turned into… something else.

When Tsutomu Takahata, former Kawasaki Frontale manager, accepted the role as the J.League U-22 Selection manager, he faced a difficulty no other team would face anywhere in pro football: instead of an factual team he could work with throughout the season, all J1 and J2 clubs were to name players aged 17 to 21 on a weekly basis.

Takahata’s job was to look for the most promising prospects from those players nominated. Within half a week those youngsters were to set up and compete against the eleven newly promoted – and in case of Gainare Tottori, freshly demoted – teams in J3 League. Despite this, their stint in the J3 League began with a good start. By winning against Fujieda MYFC, Blaublitz Akita, Yokohama SSC and Fukushima United FC within the first six matches, the project had an exciting start.

Despite all the nomination process issue that hindered the development of play routines, the players also had to play every game as an away team. Today’s most prominent players within those six matches were Takuya Kida, Yohei Takaoka (both Yokohama F. Marinos), Yuto Uchida, Tomoya Koyamatsu (both Sagan Tosu), Genta Miura (Gamba Osaka), Shota Kaneko (Shimizu S-Pulse) and Shinnosuke Nakatani (Nagoya Grampus).

While Genta Miura, Shota Kaneko and Shinnosuke Nakatani were allowed to make the most out of their nominations, playing in both seasons with the J3 side, many others had a different situation in their parent club. While the teams were encouraged to send their best young players to manager Takahata and his coaching staff on a weekly basis, it was mostly those players that didn’t stand a chance within their home sides anyway. A reoccurring topic for the second part of our J. League youth team recap.

Big expectations were there thinking about how much the U-22 Selection could have helped players looking to Rio 2016. It did not.

So the problems Takahata had to overcome in all 69 games of the J.League U-22 Selection can be shown by a few statistics throughout their two seasons:

  • 149 different players from J1 and J2 League have been nominated.
  • Tatsuya Wada is the player with most caps (yet only 33 games).
  • Daiki Yagishita and Tasuku Hiraoka have the second-most caps (22 games each).
  • The team has only won 16 matches and lost 40 games.
  • The teams only scored 65 goals, but conceded an immense amount of 134, which led to a points-per-game ratio of 0.88.

So after the furious first match days, the team stagnated in the J3 League table and by MD12 never topped eighth place in 2014 again. In the second (and last) season of the J.League U-22 selection, the players basically became cannon fodder to more ambitious senior clubs. As the team was not allowed to promote to J2 anyway, the players had no goal but to play against more professional sides.

In 2015 the team never climbed the J3 table above place 12 of 13. The U-22 project wasn’t continued for the 2016 season since this was the year of the Brazil Olympics. But was it a failure in giving youngsters access to the Olympic team?

If we look at the 2016 Brazil Olympic squad which consisted of 18 players, 15 of which were aged 23 or less, eleven players were send at least once to the U-22. Four of those 15 players were already an integral part of their respective parent club and were never nominated to play in J3 League. When we look at the players that have been sent four times to the J.League U-22 Selection at least, we end up with namely Naomichi Ueda (4x), Masatoshi Kushibiki (5x), Musashi Suzuki (5x) and Yosuke Ideguchi (11x).

While three of those players today have been or actually play in Europe, only Ideguchi could be called somewhat of a regular player at the U-22 team. In the Olympics, Japan lost the opening game 4-5 to Nigeria on August 8th, 2016, and failed to reach the knock-out round. But how did the U22-Selection influence that outcome?

The concept of the J.League U-22 Selection was good-intended, yet, especially since the league was dependent to their member clubs. By any means, it was simply not possible to build up a fixed team you could improve over the span of the two seasons in J3 League. A fixed Olympic team would’ve been able to regularly compete against more experienced and physically stronger opponents to sharpen their profile at their parent clubs in the 2016 season.

As it turned out, players that ended up in the Olympic squad to a certain degree were already or at least were on their way to be settled with their parent club. Players who held in high regard by J.League fans (e.g. Kosuke Nakamura, Ryota Oshima, Sei Muroya or Takumi Minamino) are today experienced members, capable of regularly play for the Japanese national team, yet hardly played a role in the two-season long history of the J.League U-22 Selection.

In one of the few wins of those two years, a young trio – Koya Yuruki, Koki Sugimori and Koji Miyoshi – destroyed Fujieda MYFC.

To a certain degree the J.League U-22 selection failed its purpose, yet looking at some high profile players you cannot argue that their history is partly connected to this experiment in the J3 League haydays. What do you remember of the U22-Selection and, in your eyes, was it a success? Leave us a comment or write us via Twitter @JLeagueRegista.


Extra: Nov 14th, 2020, marked the fifth anniversary of the J.League U-22 Selection’s final match against Renofa Yamaguchi in 2015. A goalless draw ended the two year in Japan’s third division. Let us have a look what happened to the players that were nominated back then:

Check out the final game’s match report and the player profiles on Transfermarkt.

Goalkeeper:

  • Masatoshi Kushibiki © (regular GK for Montedio Yamagata)

Defenders:

  • Rikiya Motegi (never settled with Urawa Red Diamonds, regular CB to Ehime FC)
  • Ryosuke Shindo (kicked off his career in 2018 with Consadole Sapporo)
  • Kazuki Sato (regularly loaned to Mito HollyHock, now with Vanraure Hachinohe in J3 League)

Midfielders:

  • Hiroyuki Mae (moved to J2 in 2019 and now plays at Avispa Fukuoka)
  • Tatsuya Wada (since 2016 at Tochigi SC)
  • Reo Mochizuki (loaned from Nagoya Grampus to J2, now at Veertien Mie in the JFL)
  • Koya Yuruki (moved up the ranks at Montedio Yamagata, now with Urawa Red Diamonds)
  • Shota Saito (loaned to Mito HollyHock for two seasons, since then played lower tier football, now at Suzuka PointGetters)

Forwards:

  • Taiga Maekawa (since 2016 on loan in J2, now Montedio Yamagata)
  • Masatoshi Ishida (couldn’t settle with Kyoto Sanga, moved to South Korea in 2019, now Suwon FC)

And this was the bench for that game:

  • Yohei Takaoka (became a starting GK with Sagan Tosu, now with Yokohama F. Marinos)
  • Takuma Mizutani (helped to promote FC Imabari to the JFL, now with Nagano Parceiro)
  • Takumi Kiyomoto (part of the Oita Trinita rise to J1, short stint in the K League, now with Fujieda MYFC)
  • Daiki Yagishita (couldn’t settle with Matsumoto Yamaga, now Kataller Toyama)
  • Koki Oshima (couldn’t settle with Kashiwa Reysol, now with Tochigi SC)

Manager

  • Tsutomu Takahata (since 2016 he is academy manager for CSL club Hebei China Fortune)
Still a better result than the first match against Renofa Yamaguchi in 2015.

In the second part of this series we will have a look at the most recent youth team development in Japanese football. Stay tuned!

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