Judging the Best XI J. League chosen for 2020, Kawasaki Frontale have been unique. It’s not just about the points scored, the goals, the victories and the titles, but also about the depth a roster can actually achieve. The club guided by Toru Oniki probably reached the peak in 2020, although there are a couple of improvable positions (finding solid back-ups for the goalkeeper and the center backs is a target for 2021).
But among the many protagonists of this season, there’s a crucial and clear gem standing above others: 13 goals and assisting 13 more in 30 J1 matches played (1594 minutes, only eleventh in team). They were enough to take the league by storm and steal the show: Kaoru Mitoma didn’t win the “MVP Award” for J. League players and coaches, but he did clinch both titles – as rookie and best player – in our special awards.
It’s easy to find why he won by a landslide: only four rookies have made it to the Best XI of J1 League. And those names are heavy: the most famous is Shinji Ono, the less celebrated is Yoshizumi Ogawa (who won anyway a J1 title and played a lot of matches in the top tier). In the middle, there are Yuji Nakazawa and Hiroki Sakai, two stable national team players and legends.
Mitoma rewrote history in this 2020. But before going further and understanding where he might end up, it’s important to take a step back and see the big picture about his unexpected rise to fame.
Leaving to grow
Behind the appearance of a serious kid, Mitoma has proved to be already mature enough with his choices. Born in Oita, Kaoru moved to the Kanagawa area with his family and joined Frontale youth sector when he was 10. The tie between him and the club has been there for a long time, having gone through several categories with Frontale’s jersey (you can find a profile of him on Kawasaki’s website already in 2017).
Mitoma always dreamt of becoming a professional player and even saw some team-mates joining the first team (Ko Itakura and Koji Miyoshi), but he also saw his friends not finding any space on the pitch. That’s why he opted for another decision: joining University of Tsukuba. When asked about it at the time, he said: “I didn’t feel confident. On the long-term, this perspective is a great benefit to me and will have a big impact on my life”.
But the signs of his game were already there. There are compilations collecting his plays against university teams and the seeds of greatness we’ve seen throughout 2020 are easy to spot: the runs, the positioning on the left flank, the inability for opponents to throw him down when he runs in transition. In the end, University of Tsukuba had also developed two more Kawasaki key-players: Shogo Taniguchi and Shintaro Kurumaya.
The plan worked: Mitoma grew up, improved his physical condition and lived through many moments that helped him mature even more. Most of all, the 2017 Emperor’s Cup saw the University of Tsukuba flying past J. League opposition: they defeated YSCC Yokohama, Vegalta Sendai and Avispa Fukuoka before tumbling against Omiya Ardija. Mitoma even scored a brace in Sendai, but the whole team was deeply promising.
And it’s not just about his time with Tsukuba, because even with the young selections of the national team he had a chance to shine. Mitoma played in the 2019 Toulon Tournament (with another future Frontale player, Reo Hatate, who was back then attending Juntendo University) and then won the gold medal in the 2019 Universiade football championship.
An undeniable match
Once the four years-stint in Tsukuba ended, Mitoma finally felt ready to meet his destiny: a spot in the Kawasaki Frontale roster. Compared to the time when Yahiro Kazama offered him a spot at just 18 years old, he understood the challenge of facing J1 football and even the club evolved while he was in the university, winning two titles under new manager Toru Oniki.
When he came back, he said: “I want to show I can be useful on both ends of the field, especially showing my strengths, like dribbling”. And boy if he did: he debuted in J1 with a 25 minutes-cameo against Sagan Tosu, after having featured for just four minutes plus injury time against Shimizu S-Pulse one week earlier in the J. League Cup (the same competition in which he appeared in 2019, only for one match).
The pandemic stopped everything, so we didn’t get a proper taste of his potential. When Frontale started the season, Tatsumi Hasegawa – ductile player and talisman in recent years – was picked to be the starter on the left wing. But on the long run, Oniki probably figured out it wasn’t going to work. Despite this thought, Mitoma skipped the first three games after the restart.
Then came the match against Yokohama FC away, where Mitoma won a penalty which changed the game for good in favor of Frontale. Then the first J1 goal against Shonan Bellmare fired him up for the rise we’ve all come to know. It’s amazing how Mitoma started just nine of the 30 league matches he featured in this year, but he scored against Cerezo (twice), Nagoya and Marinos (twice, plus this George Weah-esque moment).
Even in the last match of the season – the one played away at Kashiwa, when Frontale were trailing 2-0 right after the start of the second half –, his and Ienaga’s entries were enough to give flip the result and see Kawasaki winning it all. He didn’t break Yoshinori Muto’s record of 13 goals by a rookie, but tied it and played even better than the then-forward of FC Tokyo, leaving a major impact on this 2020.
Staying or leaving?
Now there’s a question mark over his head: will he retain his spot within Kawasaki’s starting eleven or take the chance and fly to the Old Continent? It’s a tough question. As we can see it, there’s a pending doubt, tied to the always valid concept of “Second product syndrome”: is this a fluke? Or can the winger really repeat a season like this one? We’re lingering more towards the second option, but there’s no certainty.
Mitoma has never hidden his European ambition: when he was still in university, he admitted he would have liked to try an experience overseas. He reiterated that by stating he’d like to learn English, so we can see there’s space for that to happen. Actually, it seems Mitoma envisions himself like a possible ambassador for Japanese football in Europe: despite being just 23 years-old, he set his priorities straight a long time ago.
We’re sure Kawasaki would fill an eventual void left by Mitoma, but there’s a standard to meet: if he wants to leave for Europe, the no. 18 needs to assert his options, because he probably can’t afford to pick a wrong match. We know how badly this hurt careers like the one of Takashi Usami and Yoichiro Kakitani. And with the talent he’s bringing on the pitch, we would struggle to see Mitoma not fulfilling his dream as he wishes.