Another Try

There’s this Greek myth of Icarus, who longed to escape Crete with wings made of feathers and wax. His father, Daedalus, warned him of the disillusion of such a project, but also advised him to not fly too close to the sun. Despite his father’s advice, Icarus flew really high, while his sun disintegrated his wings. A kind of “wishful thinking”, with its negative consequences. In Japanese football, there was a club that miscalculated 2021.

In the same unexpected way, Sagamihara won a sudden promotion in 2020. After coming fifteenth on the table in 2019, no one would have tipped them to have the season they had. In the end, a condensed schedule and the sportive suicide by Nagano Parceiro made everything real: SC Sagamihara were finally in J2, another original J3 club reaching the long-awaited promotion.

And just like Icarus, they maybe flew too close to the sun. As the mythological figure died in the attempt of reaching his freedom, Sagamihara faced J2 in their maiden campaign with a wrong approach, without improving the squad and actually losing some key players in the pre-season. Even the change of pace – both on and off the pitch – didn’t salvage the initial goal of keeping the category.

A few months later from a painful relegation, Sagamihara are ready to fly again, but this Winter they have maybe learned a thing or two in the process. Including how to get back to J2 in a saner and healthier way.

A crowded area

Tokyo is full of teams, just like Kanto in general. Nevertheless, former national team member and J. Leaguer Shigeyoshi Mochizuki didn’t flinch when it came down to creating SC Sagamihara in February 2008. After climbing from the Kanagawa Prefectural League to J3, they joined the inaugural season of the third division in 2014. But they looked like a perennial J3 side, a welcoming venue for former JNT members (Naohiro Takahara, Junichi Inamoto, and mostly Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi).

The 2019 season didn’t leave any doubt about the collocation of the team within J3: at the bottom. The hiring of Fumitake Miura – who took the role of head coach at Nagano and Niigata – didn’t produce the hoped results. Then 2020 struck: a compacted schedule and a gritty approach to J3 produced a miracle. The Brazilian forwards – Iury and especially Rômulo – helped produce a 19 games-run of results, which resulted in a second place and the leap to J2.

Unfortunately, the defensive approach of Miura didn’t work in J2. He lasted 16 matches, where Sagamihara softly landed in the last spot. Only two wins and the general feeling it was all written for a speedy relegation. The lack of offensive firepower – Rômulo left in the Winter, and the acquisitions didn’t exactly inspire trust – left Sagamihara with a sense of dull, doomed fate.

Comeback Bid

Initially, the hiring of Takuya Takagi didn’t really change that much. The winless streak went through for two months, until something switched: Sagamihara racked up 15 points in nine games, starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Jungo Fujimoto regained a form never seen in the last years. The loans of Yuan Matsuhashi, Shunto and Reo Kodama suddenly opened the gap for better things.

The difference between J2 and J3 in one action.

Takuya Takagi himself had nothing to lose here: after a respectable career – especially in Yokohama and Nagasaki, with two promotions to J1 –, he lost most of his reputation with Omiya Ardija. Starting fresh at Sagamihara helped him reboot his career. And in fact, Sagamihara left the relegation zone twice in the final third of the year: in Matchday 30 and in Matchday 40, when they snatched a late heroic win in the six-pointer away at Ehime.

Sagamihara went really close to avoid relegation and lost many points in the final minutes of games… otherwise, they would still be in J2. And the embodiment of this tendency came in the second-last match, at home against Matsumoto. Sagamihara went ahead, they conceded in the 93rd minute and then had anyway the chance to win the game and potentially have the upper hand in the final match. They drew, then lost at Verdy and said goodbye to J2.

What can’t kill you…

Despite the relegation, Sagamihara is one of the two relegated teams who retained their coach (although we’d have so many questions about the retaining of Nanami at Yamaga). Takagi is confirmed, and he’s clearly more than suited for J3. He has tons of experience in J2, it’s going to be his first season coaching this low in the Japanese football ladder: a steady hand is definitely needed.

What about the squad? It looks good for J3. Sagamihara have brought in Takayuki Funayama and Kensei Ukita. Kensei Nakashima will grant more creativity, while Jungo Fujimoto – even at half of the level we’ve seen in 2021 – would be a plus. Tsubasa Ando could finally start; Yuan Matsuhashi stuck around on loan, while senators as Kaoru Takayama and Jiro Kamata will make a difference, just like Kentaro Kakoi on goal.

The final question is: can Sagamihara do it? Well, they learned something. Yamaga are shaky, Gifu are packed but all to understand. Miyazaki don’t have the same manager, and Toyama are stronger, but still unreliable. Maybe it’s time to regain their spot in the second division and never look back. Maybe that sun that looked too burning at the first try might be more indulging this time around.

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