Many soccer teams around the world recover from losing their captain and midfield inspiration between seasons, and many would even shrug off the departure of their best defender soon after.

But few could subsequently sell five international players and still manage to find a new coach to begin the season with a smile on his face.

But Josip Kuze believes he has much to be happy about as he prepares for the big kickoff with his new club, JEF United Chiba.

After captain Yuki Abe left the club for Urawa Reds at the end of the 2006 season, many naysayers were predicting the drop for a team that had been punching above its weight for some time.

A dismal 13th-place finish last year suggested all was not well in Chiba, and a spat between coach Amar Osim and defender Ilian Stoyanov ended with the Bulgarian center back being shipped off to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Osim found himself leaving the club at the end of the season too, but he was not the only one.

Young winger Koki Mizuno scored a big move to Celtic in Scotland, while midfielders Satoru Yamagishi, Naotake Hanyu and Yuto Sato all left for J. League rivals.

The loss of defender Hiroki Mizumoto to Gamba Osaka compounded the exodus, but the club was still able to find a coach with enough enthusiasm to carry the team into a new era.

Kuze, a Croatian with experience in the J. League from his time in charge of Gamba in the mid-1990s, is bullish when talk turns to the players who have left.

“I am coming to a new job to a club that has lost some very good players,” he said.

“But we have some young players that can come into the team this season, and next season we will be fighting for the title.”

Kuze believes JEF’s tradition of giving young players a chance to make a name for themselves before moving on for a big profit means the club is well-equipped to cope with the latest departures.

“Two years ago the team was also full of beginners,” he said.

“We have players with potential. They need practice and they need confidence, but after five or six games they can show their potential. They are all 18, 19, 20, 21, but I expect them to develop.”

Kuze has singled out strikers Kota Aoki and Ryo Kanazawa and midfielder Tsukasa Masuyama as the pick of the latest JEF crop, but they will need experienced heads around them if they are to fulfill the manager’s prediction.

Midfielder Tomi Shimomura has suddenly found himself thrust into the role of elder statesman at the club, and the 27-year-old knows he has a big part to play in turning Chiba’s fortunes around.

“We are all trying to do our best, and now I have more responsibility,” he said.

“I think it is difficult to replace the five players who have left, but to change the coach and the tactics is not just to benefit the young players, but to benefit all of us.”

Shimomura says Kuze’s impact is already being felt, and believes the Croatian can prepare JEF to deal with the predators circling the weakened team and eyeing it as easy prey.

“The biggest change is that for a long time Mr. Osim and then his son Amar were in charge, and under them we marked man to man,” Shimomura said.

“Mr. Kuze has new tactics, and this year we will play with fullbacks. When those five players transferred, I thought that we would have to change, but the important thing was how to change.

“Now we will be more organized.”

Editor’s note: Look for a feature on Consadole Sapporo manager Toshiya Miura in Thursday’s paper.

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