The following is the first of a two-part preview for the upcoming J. League season. Team-by-team previews of the nine lowest-ranked teams competing in the first division are listed.
Last season: 10th
Last season was a huge disappointment for Reysol, who began the campaign eyeing success at home and abroad, and ended it in midtable with only the Nabisco Cup to show for their efforts.
Kashiwa paid the price for prioritizing success in the Asian Champions League only to fall in the semifinals, and the shock midseason resignation, and subsequent U-turn, of manager Nelsinho suggested a club struggling to hold itself together.
Nelsinho remains to lead Reysol into the new campaign, but doubts persist over his ability to breathe new life into a team that looks to have grown a touch stale and jaded.
Nineteen-goal forward Masato Kudo was a significant bright spot last season, however, and the 23-year-old will be helped by the arrival of prolific striker Leandro. The Brazilian has been a cast-iron guarantee of goals wherever he has surfaced in the J. League, and if playmaker Leandro Domingues can shape the bullets for him to fire, Reysol should be serious contenders for the title.
The lack of continental distractions should also work to Kashiwa’s advantage, but improvements on last year will have to be made.
Last season: 11th
Grampus begin a new era now that former manager Dragan Stojkovic has left after six years in charge, and replacement Akira Nishino has a big rebuilding job on his hands after last season’s turgid 11th-place finish.
Grampus have been steadily declining ever since winning the title under club legend Stojkovic in 2010, and the Serbian’s reign reached its nadir last season with a campaign that never got out of first gear.
There are enough good players at the club to have achieved a higher league position, but the days when Nagoya could count itself among the division’s front-runners are in the past. Now Nishino must rouse a group of underperforming veterans while also ushering in a new generation, and the former Gamba Osaka manager could be in for a bumpy ride.
Still, if anyone knows how to instill a personal philosophy on a club it is Nishino, who turned Gamba into one of the most attractive and successful teams in the league during his decade in charge. Speedy forwards like Kensuke Nagai and Keiji Tamada should flourish in his high-tempo system, but others may need convincing and the transition is likely to take time.
Expect a season of gradual progress.
Last season: 12th
It was perhaps inevitable last year that Sagan would be unable to match their outstanding 2012 debut top-flight campaign — where they finished fifth — but at least the Kyushu side comfortably avoided relegation without ever spending time in the bottom three.
That may have had something to do with the poor quality of the teams below them, but Sagan showed enough style of their own to suggest that they are capable of consolidating themselves as first-division regulars.
Offseason arrivals Michihiro Yasuda, Hiroyuki Taniguchi and Minoru Suganuma should give the club a helping hand toward doing so, and the continued presence of striker Yohei Toyoda, with 39 goals in his last two seasons, is a huge plus.
A total of 63 goals conceded last year — the most outside the relegated teams by a long chalk — offers a stark picture of where Tosu’s problems lie. If injury or loss of form should mean Toyoda is unable to compensate at the other end, the team could be in real trouble.
Much will depend on how the newly promoted sides fare, but with a fair wind behind them, Sagan should be capable of surviving again.
Last season: 13th
There was a sense that manager Makoto Teguramori had taken Vegalta as far as he could when he stood down at the end of last season, but the appointment of Australian Graham Arnold as his replacement was an intriguing move.
Vegalta had a largely anonymous campaign last year after challenging for the title the season before, but the arrival of former Central Coast Mariners and Socceroos boss Arnold was an unexpected choice for a club not previously known for innovation.
Arnold’s A-League connections have brought experienced New Zealand midfielder Michael McGlinchey with him from Central Coast, although a loan move for highly rated Celtic youngster Tom Rogic did not eventually come to pass.
Vegalta will need all the new stimulus they can get after failing to raise the pulse last season, and goalkeeper Takuto Hayashi’s departure to champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima takes a sizeable chunk out of a disciplined defense that conceded only 38 goals.
Arnold will have to light a fire under underperforming forwards such as Shingo Akamine to get Vegalta moving in the right direction, but a period of consolidation seems inevitable first.
Last season: 14th
Predicting how Omiya might fare this season is a fool’s game given last year’s frankly ludicrous campaign, where the Saitama side flew out the blocks only to sink like a stone in one of the most spectacular collapses the J. League has ever seen.
Omiya led the league by five points after 15 games before losing 16 of their remaining 19, shedding manager Zdenko Verdenik and welcoming and discarding Australia captain Lucas Neill along the way in a period that everyone at Ardija will be keen to forget.
The entire structure of the club has changed in the interim, and new manager Kiyoshi Okuma has a job on his hands righting the ship after such a disorientating season. There is no doubt that quality remains in the shape of forward Zlatan Ljubijankic, defender Shohei Takahashi and goalkeeper Takashi Kitano, but last season’s carnage has taken its toll with the departure of striker Milivoje Novakovic and midfielder Takuya Aoki.
Former Gamba Osaka man Akihiro Ienaga is a canny signing given the circumstances, but it really is impossible to say what effect last season’s meltdown will have on the team this year.
The potential is there, but until such time as proved otherwise, Ardija remain a law unto themselves.
Last season: 15th
Ventforet’s return to the first division looked like it might be a short one when they lost eight games in a row last summer, but Hiroshi Jofuku’s side eventually stopped the rot to survive with room to spare.
Ventforet grew into J1 as the season wore on, beating eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima and scalping Kashima Antlers 3-0, and although they may have escaped the drop by only one league place, a gap of fully 12 points separated them from 16th-place Shonan Bellmare in the final table.
That is not to say that Kofu can expect an easy ride this time around, especially with leading scorer Patric departed and replacement Cristiano from Tochigi SC untested at this level.
Defender Shohei Abe is the main arrival, but signings elsewhere have been low-key — with Indonesian striker Irfan Bachdim an intriguing exception — and good players such as Yoshifumi Kashiwa have followed Patric through the exit door.
As with last season, much will depend on how low the division’s poorest teams set the relegation standard, but Kofu does not look safe by any means heading into the new campaign.
Ventforet will need to use all they learned last season to beat the drop again.
Last season: J2 champion
Gamba return to J1 after only a season in the second division, looking to re-establish themselves as perennial title contenders and prove that 2012′s relegation was merely a glitch.
A season away from the top flight may have done Gamba some good, allowing incoming manager Kenta Hasegawa time to bed in and giving young prospects like Tatsuya Uchida and Hiroyuki Abe a consistent run in the team.
Gamba won the J2 title with a 17-point cushion ahead of the playoff places and 99 goals scored, and it seems reasonable to assume that the 2005 champions can make an immediate impact on their return.
It is even tempting to wonder what Gamba could have achieved in J1 last year with midfielder Yasuhito Endo and defender Yasuyuki Konno being joined by returning prodigy Takashi Usami, and the squad now looks even stronger after some sensible offseason moves.
New Brazilians Lins and Evson may be unproven, but the arrival of goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi from Albirex Niigata finally addresses a long-standing problem, while Koki Yonekura should be a capable deputy to right back Akira Kaji.
A season of steady readjustment is probably likely, but a shot at the title is not out of the question either.
Last season: second in J2
Vissel begin the new season with dreams of hitting the big time thanks to a host of expensive new recruits, but the ambitious Kansai club has been here before with many bitter memories to show for it.
Marquinhos, Fabio Simplicio, Takahiro Masukawa and Pedro Junior are the latest J1 stalwarts to have answered Vissel’s siren call, hoping to instill a winning culture at the club after gaining promotion at the first time of asking following 2012′s shambolic relegation.
Vissel’s impressive campaign in J2 last season proves there is quality at manager Ryo Adachi’s disposal, and there can be no disputing the standard of the players brought in over the offseason given their experience and winning pedigree.
Unfortunately, the same could be said the last time Vissel had a crack at the top flight, and much will depend on how Adachi can manage the personalities in his dressing room this time round. Marquinhos will be 38 before the campaign is even a month old, Pedro Junior is known to be a combustible element, and Adachi will need to tread carefully to negotiate what could be a turbulent season.
Vissel certainly have the personnel to achieve something, but another messy implosion is possible too.
Last season: fourth in J2 (playoff winners)
Tokushima begins the new season as the first club from Shikoku ever to compete in the first division, but the specter of Oita Trinita will loom large over the J2 playoff winners as they face up to life in the top flight.
Trinita became the first team to win promotion to J1 through the playoffs when they were introduced in 2012, only to sink back immediately with the Kyushu side clearly out of its depth and mustering only two wins all season.
Vortis will be wary of suffering the same fate after finishing last season fourth in the J2 table, a full 20 points behind champions Gamba Osaka and only four ahead of ninth-place Tochigi SC. First-division experience is thin on the ground in Tokushima’s squad, and a final goal difference of only +5 last season was a remarkable figure for a promoted team.
On the plus side, new attacking midfielder Kleiton Domingues looks capable of making a name for himself, while strikers Tomohiro Tsuda and Douglas both scored into double figures last season.
In reality, however, the cards are stacked heavily against Vortis, and anything other than relegation would be a real surprise.
A few memorable results would be much appreciated.