Soccer | From the Spot

Tokyo's title ambitions all but extinguished

by Dan Orlowitz

Despite leading the league for 20 straight rounds from Round 8 — and retaking the top spot for one more week after Round 31 — FC Tokyo is almost certain to settle for second place when the final whistle is blown on Saturday at Nissan Stadium.

Afterward, they’ll get to watch the team on the other side of the pitch — Yokohama F. Marinos — raise the first-division trophy for the first time in 15 years.

“In the end we can’t win the league unless we persist and win by four goals in the last game,” Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said after the team’s 1-1 draw with Urawa Reds last Saturday.

“Our chances may be one percent or even less, but as long as we have a chance I want us to fight together.”

The only scenario that would result in a Tokyo championship — a four-goal margin of victory against Ange Postecoglou’s men to overcome a seven-goal spread in their respective goal differences — is difficult to imagine playing out.

This leaves Tokyo supporters with, to borrow a phrase from former U.S. President Barack Obama, the audacity of hope.

“Let’s score four” has become a mantra among Tokyo fans this week, with even the club’s official Twitter account playing back results from as early as the 2002 season.

But when the team’s title dreams rely on an attack that has sputtered since mid-August, it’s hard for all but the staunchest of die-hards to remain optimistic.

In the last 11 rounds, which included an eight-game road trip imposed by the Rugby World Cup’s use of Ajinomoto Stadium, striker Diego Oliveira scored just two of his 14 goals this season, while his topline partner Kensuke Nagai managed just one of his overall nine.

Tokyo’s attacking struggles have let down its stalwart defense, which has conceded just 26 goals this year — the fewest the capital club has ever allowed in the top flight.

Now Hasegawa may enter Saturday without Nagai or Oliveira, as both are day-to-day after suffering injuries against Urawa, as well as right back Sei Muroya, who will miss the fixture after earning his fourth yellow card of the season.

“(Nagai and Oliveira) are our double engine,” Hasegawa said. “They’ve pulled our offense and defense forward. Our intensity dropped without them, but the players who replaced them worked hard.”

If Nagai and Oliveira are the engines, it’s fair to say that Tokyo has been without a spark plug for several months.

That key component, midfielder Takefusa Kubo, managed to be Tokyo’s most dynamic player on the pitch at just 17 years old, recording four goals and four assists in 13 appearances before signing for Real Madrid just after he turned 18 in early June.

While midfielder Hirotaka Mita and defender Oh Jae-suk certainly contributed after arriving mid-summer, neither made up the difference against what the presumptive Tokyo 2020 star took with him to Spain, and Tokyo’s inability to sign a true replacement for Kubo is arguably the biggest reason it likely won’t be lifting the schale on Saturday.

Even the slogan adopted by Tokyo in the final phase of the season — “Until the last second” (saigō no ichibyō made) — feels more like the battle cry of a gutsy underdog than what should have been an assertion of dominance from the league leaders.

“We can’t finish lower than second place and we have nothing to lose,” said midfielder Kento Hashimoto on Saturday. “I want to play (against Marinos) and enjoy the fact that it’s the last game of the season and we still have a chance at the championship.”

Tokyo has undoubtedly achieved much in 2019. A win to close the season would put the team 20 points above its 2018 total, and a second-place finish will still bring the club a prize of ¥120 million ($1.1 million), an additional ¥750 million ($7 million) in development funds over the next three years and a return to the Asian Champions League.

That’s on top of the incredible progress shown by the club’s promotional team in drawing a club record of 31,540 fans per game, making Tokyo the third J. League side ever to crack the 30,000 mark, following Albirex Niigata (2003-2010) and Urawa Reds (2004-present).

Tokyo is a lock to enter the 2020 season as a bona fide title contender, and if it can take advantage of its newfound revenue streams and sign a number of talented foreign players — much like Marinos did this season — it may fill the gap in its trophy cabinet.

But for the fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before — and now after — every game, it’s a shame that the wait will have been a year longer than necessary.