Just over five years ago, Yokohama F. Marinos showed their faith in then-22-year-old Teruhito Nakagawa when they announced they would sign the Senshu University attacker to a pro contract, less than two weeks after he had severely damaged his right knee on the pitch.

Following a long rehabilitation period and a pair of half-season loans to second-division clubs, that faith has paid off in a big way as Nakagawa emerged as a key figure in the port city club’s dramatic run to the J. League first-division championship.

“I wanted to win the title by scoring a goal, but I’m just glad I was able to repay Marinos (for their confidence) by winning the league,” Nakagawa said on Saturday after the team clinched the J1 crown with a 3-0 victory over FC Tokyo.

“It feels a little surprising that we’ve actually won it. It’s not quite real. But when we lifted the schale in front of the supporters, it was just the perfect scene, and we’ve worked hard since the beginning of the season to be able to do this.”

The Kanagawa Prefecture native finished the season with 15 goals — earning him a share of the top-scorer honors alongside teammate Marcos Junior — and nine assists, second most in the league.

While his stat lines made him the most obvious selection for the league’s Most Valuable Player, an award voted on by J1 managers and players with 17 more appearances, Nakagawa made it clear on Saturday that he did not intend to rest on his accomplishments.

“I don’t want this to be a one-year thing, where people say I accomplished so much in 2019 and then next year I flopped,” Nakagawa said. “I have to keep aiming higher. But this season showed me how far I could go, and next season I have to keep improving.”

Nakagawa had little time to celebrate with his Marinos teammates. Instead, on Sunday he hopped onto a plane bound for Busan, South Korea, where Japan’s national team will contest the East Asian Football Federation’s biannual E-1 Championship. He accepted his MVP prize via teleconference during Sunday’s awards ceremony.

“I have to switch over (to national team mode),” Nakagawa said at Nissan Stadium after the title-clinching match.

“It’s okay to celebrate today, but now I have to focus on the national team, and next year (Marinos) will have more tough games.”

In receiving his first Samurai Blue call-up at 27 years old, Nakagawa will be looking to make a positive impact in front of head coach Hajime Moriyasu.

“We’ll be playing against teams with physiques we don’t see in Japan, and the play will be rougher than the J. League,” Nakagawa said. “But I don’t want to lose against them . . . I have to show off my play. I’m looking forward to it and I want to grow from the experience.”

The four-team tournament, which will also feature South Korea, China and Hong Kong, should also help Nakagawa prepare for the rigors of his first Asian Champions League campaign as well as the pressure of competing in the J1 as defending champions.

“We’ll have serious opponents in Asia. It will be more aggressive and intense, and we have to train our bodies and our minds in preparation for that,” Nakagawa said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

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