Red Goalie Redemption

As a neutral, but passionate observer of J. League, you tend to watch every highlight you can look at. Even the bad ones, and in the last years there’s been a club you watched just to see if they were going to bottle it again. That club has been JEF United Chiba: their never-ending purgatory in J2 touched the grotesque to become even amusing to someone who doesn’t root for the Chiba-based club.

The embodiment of this tragedy was their keeper, who fulfilled his dream of playing for his hometown club in 2016. Unfortunately, his performances were often targeted with mistakes and several laughable episodes. So much you must wonder if he really deserved that spot. And this is where it becomes all unreal: our protagonist had to leave to regain his magic power, joining Kumamoto last Winter.

Right here, throughout the editions of the Regista Awards, Kumamoto had a candidate in this category. Both Kaito Yamamoto in 2019 and Kei Uchiyama in 2020 reached the shortlist and were candidates recipients for the “Best Goalkeeper” award but didn’t win it. We had to embrace Yuya Sato’s redemption journey to see that coming.

In fact, the former JEF goalie is one of the reasons why Roasso could finally enjoy again the taste of a J2 pitch. Madness, right?

A 2-0 home win sealed not just promotion after three years, but as well the J3 title.

A long journey

Born in Ichikawa, Yuya Sato found his popularity already when he was 17: with his side – the Funabashi Municipal High School –, he took part in the 2003 Emperor’s Cup, where he faced Yokohama F. Marinos. That game saw an epic fight, with the youngsters bringing Marinos to the penalty kicks, where they eventually prevailed. Nevertheless, the kids’ keeper – Yuya Sato, indeed – pulled off several saves to keep them in the match.

It seemed the beginning of a wonderful path. He joined Ventforet Kofu in 2004, where there wasn’t space for him. Sent on loan to Consadole Sapporo in 2006, he stayed there permanently since the year after; four seasons where though he didn’t find enough pitch-time. He then signed for Giravanz Kitakyushu, where he finally found the starting spot he was craving for: 89 matches over two seasons certified his status as a J2 keeper.

He moved forward in 2013, when he was scooped by Tokyo Verdy, where he played another three years as a key piece of the puzzle. At that point, his reputation as a J2 keeper was finally solid, and could face the biggest challenge of his career to that point: coming home – to Chiba – and signing for JEF United. In his presentation to the club, he was straight: “I don’t think I need to say a lot of words. I’ll give my best”.

One of the few good moments? Saving a PK in stoppage time against Kamatamare and virtually sealing the home win in a torrid night of July 2017.

Backfire and labels

The hype was so high that Sato even won the captain’s armband in the club, overcoming a legend like Yuto Sato. It was a great moment for him: he was 30, at the peak of his performances, and he would have been a decisive piece to end JEF’s run in J2. Unfortunately, little did he know those five years with the club were going to be a full nightmare for him.

Despite JEF changed manager at the end of Sato’s first season – Sekizuka was dismissed and Argentinian head coach Juan Esnáider came in, staying there for almost three years –, Sato remained the starter for a long time, pushing a club legend like Masahiro Okamoto first to the bench and then to a loan to Ehime FC. Nevertheless, Sato’s mistakes became too much to bear with for Esnáider, who pushed for a change between the sticks in 2019.

In fact, Sato didn’t fit the sweeper-keeper-figure the head coach wanted for the no. 1 (like Iikura had a rough patch at Marinos under Postecoglou). Esnáider tried both fellow countryman Diego Rodríguez and Chol-hwan Ono in 2018, then Ryota Suzuki in 2019. When Shota Arai joined from Frontale in 2020 and Yoon Jung-hwan became the head coach in 2020, it was the end for Sato. He never played for JEF again.

Here to stay

What’s next, then? Where a washed-up 34-years-old goalie can be useful? Roasso had counted on Kei Uchiyama, who signed permanently from Consadole, but Sato joined Kumamoto in the hope of a renaissance. Due to his J2 shenanigans, we scratched our heads when head coach Takeshi Oki gave him the starting spot. The first mistakes – in some games against Fukushima, Vanraure, and even Tegevajaro – seemed to confirm our prediction.

Instead, Sato provided a safe, steady hand for Roasso’s defense. Kumamoto have (by far!) the best defense in J3, allowing half the goals of 2020. And even Sato had the highest numbers of saves in the league: only Fujieda MYFC’s Takuya Sugimoto came remotely close. This means Roasso risked a lot but found a better guardian for their goal: if Oki knew he had to fix this problem to reach promotion, doing it with Sato in the goal was surprising (13 clean sheets out of 26 matches).

Uchiyama has been released and Roasso got the promotion they wanted (and probably needed) after a 2-0 home win against FC Gifu in the last matchday. Now Sato will probably start as well in J2, but this time he found the right setting: despite we’ve known Oki for his spectacular brand of football (and he’s still developing kids like he did in Gifu), he developed a “safer” strategy, which fits Sato perfectly, since he doesn’t have to juggle the ball 30 meters outside the posts.

At 35 years old, Sato finally found his true essence. Who knows how long he’s going to keep it; meanwhile, he can just relax and enjoy his deserved award.

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