2021 Regista Awards: J1 League

Another year, another run: 2021 has been a full season, with 38 games in J1 and a reduced version of J3, with the second tier always exciting (also thanks to the four relegations). And it’s going to be another rush for 2022, since the Qatar-based World Cup will push an early start of the season, forcing J. League to another run to the finish line.

For the third year in a row – almost building a kind of tradition –,  J. League Regista assigned its 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:

Emperor’s Cup is still up for grabs, with Kawasaki, Oita, Cerezo and Urawa squaring for the semi-finals – next Sunday we’ll see which teams will play for the trophy in the final of Dec. 19 –, but in the meantime here are the “2021 Regista Awards” for J1 League.

In the real world, Kawasaki Frontale monopolized the Awards, which took place on Dec. 6.

Best team | Kawasaki Frontale (75%)

Avispa Fukuoka and Vissel Kobe lived through wonderful seasons, but it wasn’t enough to beat THE dynasty, the club that will leave a mark over Japanese football for decades to come. With their fourth title in four years, Frontale are making a statement: as right now, J. League is their playground. It doesn’t matter if they lose players – Morita, Mitoma and Tanaka said goodbye in the span of 12 months –, since they’re not losing any track.

Their home undefeated run is just another deserved goal achieved, and it’s hard to tell if there are signs of any change in hindsight (although in 2022 we forecast it’ll be harder to bring the title home).

Flop Team | Gamba Osaka (71%)

Tough to tell what’s next for Gamba Osaka. If Tomohiro Katanosaka is bound to come back home – he left Oita after six years and he’s the main candidate to take the job –, then the black-and-blue side of Osaka can be happy about their future. But it’s not a granted faith, since there’s a lot of work to do.

After losing the Japanese Super Cup at the last breath, no would have thought Miyamoto would have been released. Or Gamba would have struggled so much. Nevertheless, the potential is there. There’s a lot of internal talent; with a new formation – Katanosaka, for example, could try a three CBs-line – other players could emerge or reboot their career (Shoji and Usami are in a dire need of that).

Moreover, young guns – like Yota Sato, Yuya Fukuda, Kohei Okuno, Kazunari Ichimi, Keisuke Kurokawa (and possible returnee Kosei Tani) – can swing this club’s destiny, especially if they’ll be matched by other prospects (Jiro Nakamura and Hiroto Yamami will bang soon on our doors).

The lowest point of the season?

MVP & Best Foreign Player | Leandro Damião, Kawasaki Frontale (67% & 85,3%)

An absolute triumph and probably the fittest award for someone who came to Japan with low expectations. Despite a bright start to his career, who knows how many would have bet on Leandro Damião taking back the scene at 32 years old. Instead, he just ended the best season of his pro-career, renewing the contract as well with Frontale for 2022.

We couldn’t believe this, but we wrote aboutLeandro Damião this Summer, when his contribution was literally dragging Frontale over the edge of losing both Tanaka and Mitoma in the Summer. Read here to understand why 2021 has been so good for him.

Best Goalkeeper | Mitchell Langerak (51,3%)

We were wondering if it was possible to have a better season than 2020 for Mitchell Langerak. In the end, it was! Despite Yuichi Maruyama’s injury surely hindered their defense, Nagoya Grampus have been able to break the record they set for themselves last year: if they kept 17 clean sheets in 2020, they rose that number to 21 for the season that just ended.

That’s madness. Ficcadenti’s work on the defensive setups has been tremendous, especially if you read this data: Grampus have conceded 30 goals all season long, but seven of them came in the two close encounters against Kawasaki Frontale. Langerak kept his posts protected for 55,3% of his games – the closest another keeper came with a significant number of matches played is Hiroki Iikura (47,4% in his 19 games with Vissel in J1).

Take into consideration how they kept eight consecutive clean sheets and the beginning of the season. You wonder if the Australian national team should consider Langerak for at least a call-up (although Mat Ryan is a solid keeper).

who knows?

MIP | Ryuho Kikuchi (39,1%)

Before the 2020 season, we discussed how Vissel seemed to have changed direction, acquiring prestigious players, but not by force former stars. Since he joined Kobe from Renofa Yamaguchi, Ryuho Kikuchi has grown a lot: here we talked about his progress.

Best rookie | Kento Tachibanada, Kawasaki Frontale (58,2%)

The opponents in this category deserve a good shout-out – Urawa’s Atsuki Ito and Kashima’s Keigo Tsunemoto –, but the Frontale magic has won over this category as well. And there’s a good reason why, because no one would have thought that rookie Kento Tachibanada – class ’98, born in Kagoshima Prefecture and who joined from Toin University – would have been involved this much.

Tachibanada played already four Emperor’s Cup matches between 2019 and 2020, featuring in the Best Eleven of the Kanto University Soccer League. He was part of Frontale as a special designated player already in 2020 (in the June of last year, Kawasaki made it clear he was going to be involved), but it took a very few weeks for him to conquer more pitch time in the eyes of Toru Oniki.

He was ahead of Kazuki Kozuka in the pecking order and Tachibanada then played in every single competition Frontale featured this year. He was even fundamental in the Emperor’s Cup, where he scored a late equalizer to avoid an early exit against Nagano Parceiro. He scored a hat-trick as well in the AFC Champions League against United City: the future is his to confirm.

Best Signing | Ataru Esaka – Kashiwa Reysol » Urawa Red Diamonds (38,6%)

It was a tight race with the signing of Yoshinori Muto by Vissel Kobe, but Ataru Esaka and his move to Urawa Red Diamonds had the better in the polling race. Here we mentioned why the former Kashiwa joining the Saitama-based side might be an irreplaceable resource for Reds.

Best Wish | Kosei Tani – Gamba Osaka » Shonan Bellmare (58,5%)

Would you believe it? Somehow, we had the ability to read our fans’ minds. After the Tokyo Olympics, we talked here about Tani’s development in Bellmare and how he could find a role for himself with Gamba in 2022 (IF he’s actually coming back to Osaka).

Best goal | Leandro Damião, Shonan Bellmare-Kawasaki Frontale (MD16 – 62,8%)

P.S. We’re sorry with Shonan Bellmare, it’s just an accident if all nominees came against the green side based in Hiratsuka.

Don’t get us wrong: it’s not like Leandro Damião is new to this magic. He scored a lot of scissor-kicks goals this season, adding here and there some stylish back-heels to wrap his season up. But it feels like this must be awarded the “Best Goal” for 2021 because it’s the trademark play of the Brazilian striker.

Best manager | Toru Oniki (65,5%)

We really would have liked either Atsuhiro Miura or Shigetoshi Hasebe getting the award, but why not Toru Oniki? Among the four J1 titles won in these five years, this has been his more than others. I mean, look at the stats: only Masakazu Suzuki has a better points-per-game ratio than him in the history of the league among coaches with at least 50 J. League games under their belt.

He improved Frontale’s stellar PPG ratio. He did it without Morita. When the Summer market brought Tanaka and Mitoma away, he invented Hatate as a center midfielder and rapidly developed Tachibanada. With Kobayashi not at the best of his form (same for Ienaga this year), he bet everything on the return of young Ten Miyagi and Marcinho joining from China… and he won that bet! Nothing to add, your honor.


That’s it for the 2021 Regista Awards for J1 League. In a few days, we’ll catch up as well with the other two divisions. Thanks for reading and following our activity throughout the whole year!

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