We have always told how J2 stretches for a long time compared to the other two professional divisions in Japan: 2020 wasn’t an exception, since actually this year reinforced this concept. The clubs still played 42 games (only Vortis, Avispa and Yamaga had extra-commitments), but the schedule was packed through Autumn to get to the finish line. Even for J2 standards, it was tough to keep the pace, both for clubs and fans.
In such a long year, where young and unknown players came forward, we did what we liked the most in this period of the year, although after a tiring season: it’s time to take a breath – more than ever! – and make our calls in terms of awards. To do that, we summed up a small panel to pick the possible options, then saw the votes coming through polls by our readers and followers:
After Tokushima Vortis didn’t progress in the Emperor’s Cup – they fell to Gamba Osaka, who reached the final –, we’re ready to see the winners.
Best Team | Avispa Fukuoka (61,3%)
In the “Silicon Valley” of Japan, the start-up built by Hasebe worked and Avispa are back in J1, against many odds. Read here about their fabulous run in 2020.
Flop Team | Kyoto Sanga and Omiya Ardija (40%)
The writer behind this page is disappointed even more than voters, since he picked these two teams to come up in J1 for 2021. But apparently 2020 had a different plan for both clubs, although their disappointments have felt radically different. If the final results is similar – not getting promotion and underachieving –, how that happened doesn’t share the same way throughout these last months.
Probably the expectations were higher on Sanga, but they came short in the end. They ended up eighth – four points shy of sixth place –, but most of all struggled to find the rhythm all year long. They had some good wins (Júbilo and Montedio twice, while the Top 3 all lost playing Sanga away), although the oldest roster in the league (alongside with Jubilo Iwata) couldn’t find continuity.
In fact, Kyoto were never in the Top 2 and had a terrible run away from the new Sanga Stadium (only 19 points in 21 games). Someone might even say that firing Ichizo Nakata after the infamous 13-1 loss in Kashiwa in the last matchday of 2019 didn’t work out, especially if the goal was to replace his decent year with Noritada Saneyoshi. Now that Cho Kwi-jea has been announced to be the new manager for 2021, future looks promising.
You can’t say the same for Omiya Ardija. Their 2020 has several explanations – including many, many injuries –, but 2021 is gonna be tough. The Saitama-based club ended fifteenth in the table and Takuya Takagi’s second year didn’t bring the final step they needed to do starting from the third place of 2019. This year was so bad that left a stain on his solid reputation as a coach.
His successor has been picked in Ken Iwase, who has been in Kashiwa Reysol’s coaching staff under Nelsinho and had a recent internship at Oita Trinita under Tomohiro Katanosaka. He might be the right coach to start over, but you wonder if he’ll have the right material to develop his ideas and if Ardija will risk of facing a streak of seasons like JEF United had in the last decade, trapped in J2-mud.
MVP | Ken Iwao, Tokushima Vortis (38,1%)
We guess his award isn’t just a prize for the title Vortis won, but also a kind of homage to J2 in general. Iwao was formed by Shonan Bellmare in the first Cho Kwi-jea’s years, then left on loan to Mito HollyHock and joined Vortis in 2016. In his first season in Tokushima, under Hiroaki Nagashima, neither him nor the squad looked impressive. All of this, though, happened before Ricardo Rodríguez was hired to be the head coach.
Throughout the four years of the Spanish manager in Tokushima, Iwao was like a wine: by aging, he was learning and growing more. He became the absolute core of one of the finest midfields in J2 and doing that when you’re already 29 years old isn’t easy. It also shows you how football (and life) are defined by chances and meeting the right people: Rodríguez and Iwao crying after clinching promotion proves how the struggle is fitting to the ultimate goal.
Best Goalkeeper | Jon Ander Serantes, Avispa Fukuoka (76,2%)
The Spaniard lads are banging in awards and Serantes is no different: he’s the recipient of back-to-back “Best Goalkeeper” awards, although there seems to be a clear difference between 2019 and 2020. Last year, the Spanish keeper was fundamental to keep Fukuoka alive: without him, Avispa would have risked relegation. This year, with Murakami having solid performances, his contribute looked slightly less influential, but the squad was way better than the previous season.
And even if Murakami was fundamental to clinch promotion, Serantes has been an anchor for Fukuoka. Not only on the pitch, but also outside: his desire to learn Japanese, his enjoyment of life in the Land of the Rising Sun, his saves all looked fitting to a profile who seemed to be in Fukuoka to “live the dream”. Instead, Avispa opted to not confirm him for the 2021 roster and now he’s on the market. Who knows what’s next for him…
MIP | Shion Homma, Albirex Niigata (52,9%)
The Albirex no. 10 lighted up J2 this year, proved to be an absolute baller for this division. Keeping him around will be fundamental for Niigata, but you can read here a previous piece about his growth.
Best Rookie | Akira Silvano Disaro, Giravanz Kitakyushu (55,6%)
No J3 champions have ever been relegated and Giravanz Kitakyushu have confirmed this trend by having a blast of a season. They came fifth in the table, Shinji Kobayashi has won the “Best Manager” award from J. League and many players will look back to 2020 as the year who boosted their profile, but no one will indulge in the memory of this season more than Akira Silvano Disaro.
After his solid rookie year in J3 (seven goals in 26 games), the no. 9 stepped it up a notch and became a reliable striker in J2 (18 goals in 35 matches). That’s amazing not only because of the number of goals and how in many different ways he did that, but also due to his ductility in linking up with bigger forwards (like Machino and Suzuki). This trait of his skillset will surely help him if he’ll land a J1 gig (spoiler alert: he did).
Best Signing | Hiroyuki Mae, from Mito HollyHock to Avispa Fukuoka (65%)
In the piece celebrating their run in 2020, we told how Avispa Fukuoka did the bigger job with two moves: hiring Shigetoshi Hasebe as a head coach and purchasing solid profiles in the transfer market for the roster. Among them, the acquisition of Hiroyuki Mae – a loyal soldier, who followed Hasebe from Ibaraki to Fukuoka – was probably the most underrated, catching our readers’ eyes in the votes.
Despite Avispa had massive reinforcements in the midfield – Takuya Shigehiro from Kyoto Sanga and Sanfrecce-loanee Taishi Matsumoto in the Summer –, Mae looked like the anchor around whom the squad could actually grow. Inheriting also the captain grades from beloved Jun Suzuki, the no. 6 took on a lot of responsibilities for a player who just joined the new club.
Best Wish | Yuki Kakita, from Kashima Antlers to Tokushima Vortis (54,5%)
After three seasons on loan to Zweigen Kanazawa, Yuki Kakita could have also faced the chance of going back to his original club, Kashima Antlers. Instead, the Ibaraki-based side had a different plan in mind, sending their young forward on loan to another J2 club. But if playing under well-known head coach Yamagishita gave him experience, developing under the guidance of Ricardo Rodriguez seemed a match made in heaven.
In the end, it worked marvelously: Kakita scored 17 league goals, tying the amount of the last two seasons in Kanazawa. The forward improved, became the key-piece in a title winning-side and looked integrated in the brand of football Rodriguez developed for Vortis. The Spanish manager is off to Saitama, but Kakita’s loan has been extended and he’ll have a better J1 experience as a starter rather than coming off from the bench in Kashima.
Best Goal | Serginho, Kyoto Sanga v. Matsumoto Yamaga, Matchday 14 (66,7%)
Matsumoto lived through a peculiar 2020. We have never seen the club as a real contender for an immediate bounce back to J1, but Yamaga’s season has been a rollercoaster. They’re one of the only two clubs who changed their manager during this year and it worked. Just take a glance at the form table under Keiichiro Nuno and Kei Shibata: with their first head coach, Yamaga were third bottom, while with the latter head coach they sprinted to fifth.
In this mess, two players looked like a sure thing: sudden lethal weapon Koki Tsukagawa – who scored nine goals (!), just like Toyofumi Sakano – and Serginho, the technical demiurge of this squad. The Brazilian no. 10 did it all when it was possible, like in Kyoto: this once in a lifetime-free kick was a spark of what Yamaga’s season has been in the second part of the year and probably a tip of what he might show in J1 (if someone will pick him up from the second division).
Best Manager | Ricardo Rodriguez, Tokushima Vortis (54,2%)
We have to be honest here: after three years of hard work and the promotion of both Kashiwa Reysol and Yokohama FC, winning the league wasn’t a far-fetched plan for Vortis. Indeed, it was probably a clear goal, although not a sure one. Given that Júbilo and Matsumoto have never been even close to the promotion race, Tokushima had just to replicate last year’s performances and hold it until the end.
The club has made a long way from a dreadful 2016, when they looked uncapable of repeating the exploit of a promotion run. Instead, the project of Ricardo Rodriguez finally reaped the fruits of what he sowed back in the days: Vortis were not only fun to watch in 2020 (just like every year under the Spanish manager), but they also spent most of the championship in the Top 2.
Rodriguez didn’t only deliver a title to the region, but he also did a tremendous job with the players themselves. We mentioned already Iwao and Kakita, but… Masaki Watai is a game-changer. The three center-backs played at good levels and now face an unexpected chance of being in a J1 match. After a long chase, Naoto Kamifukumoto will finally have a shot at featuring in the topflight of Japanese football.
After tasting the treble with Gamba Osaka, club legend Akihiro Sato will play in J1 with Vortis. And what about re-inventing careers? Yudai Konishi is now a crafty center midfielder after coming out as a no. 10, while Takeru Kishimoto was destined to be another ineffective forward in Japanese football world. But Rodriguez transformed him into a speedy right wing-back and it worked for everyone involved.
Once the news of his departure came out, we were a little bit sad. We would have dreamed to see a full J1 season of Vortis under the Spanish manager, but he’s off to Urawa Red Diamonds, where the job will be demanding. Nevetheless, it’ll be probably even harder for Tokushima, who now face a uphill battle to retain their top flight-status in 2021: overcoming those four relegations won’t be easy.
As the end credits roll, we want to thank everyone involved in these Regista Awards, which we hope to see coming back in 2021. You can still enjoy the resume about J1 League and J3 League in the two links attached: thank you all and enjoy the break!