Kawasaki – When the history of the J. League’s 2020 season is written, it will tell of an unstoppable force that dominated the conversation from start to finish, demolishing every team in its path along the way.
And no, it wasn’t the coronavirus.
In a year unlike every other, Frontale’s remarkable title run has made even their past championships seem almost pedestrian. The team clinched its third J. League first-division crown with a record four games to spare, manhandling Gamba Osaka 5-0 in front of a “capacity” crowd of 11,370 at Todoroki Stadium.
“A lot of fans came to this game with the title on the line and even more watched on TV,” Frontale manager Toru Oniki said. “Tonight I think you saw the players rise up to meet their expectations. I’m proud of the players who displayed their incredible style from start to finish.
“We’ve experienced a lot until now, and the players have shown that challenger’s mentality and been willing to cast those experiences aside and try new things while not being afraid of failure.”
While the match was played in front of half of the stadium’s full capacity of around 23,000, the fact that so many fans were allowed into the stadium at all — even if they weren’t allowed to sing or cheer — is a testament to the massive effort undertaken across the country by the J. League, its clubs and countless medical and governmental officials who helped competitions resume after the pandemic suspended play just one week into the new season.
“You can’t avoid talking about the coronavirus and the effect it had on the season,” retiring playmaker Kengo Nakamura said. “It affected everyone around the world, and we weren’t able to play.
“When the league restarted, Oni-san (Oniki) said, ‘Now more than ever, we have to lead Japanese soccer. Let’s show our energy and bravery on the pitch and give everyone something to enjoy,’ and that lit a fire under us.”
After 17 years in which Kawasaki became known as “silver collectors” in reference to their numerous second-place finishes in the top flight — four times in the J1, four times in the J. League Cup and once in the Emperor’s Cup — the team is in the midst of a gold rush few teams have experienced in the J. League era.
That was evident on Wednesday night as Nakamura, the 40-year-old former Japan international whose 18th season at Frontale will be his last, posed for photos with the J. League schale in a gold bathtub — a nod to the club’s frequent partnerships with local bathhouses.
“It’s amazing, I can’t think of any other way to describe it,” said Nakamura, who according to media reports will become a club ambassador. Before stepping into that role, he’ll have all the time he needs to luxuriate after this season, which saw him endure a brutal rehabilitation program following his ACL injury last November.
Since returning to play in late August, he’s made 10 appearances, contributing two goals — including a birthday game-winner against FC Tokyo on Halloween — and two assists.
“We had a packed schedule and in those circumstances lots of players stepped up, and the young players grew from their experiences,” Nakamura said. “Because of that, the veterans and the core of our squad had to step up their game, and then we won 10 in a row, and even after that streak ended we kept going and set a new record with 12 straight wins.
“It took a little time to get to the title, but today was amazing. Not even the substitutes let up until the end and it was emblematic of our season.”
Nakamura has cited the emergence of young stars such as midfielder Ao Tanaka, the league’s Best Young Player in 2019, and 2020 rookie Kaoru Mitoma, who with 12 goals and nine assists — many of which were notched as a substitute — has inserted himself into the MVP conversation and could be a hot prospect for European clubs, as reasons he feels comfortable hanging up his boots.
Nakamura’s role as a leader was evident on Wednesday, from Ryota Oshima’s decision to hand over the captain’s armband when they swapped places in the 86th minute to the team’s rush to embrace the veteran at the final whistle.
“I felt like a father seeing his kids,” Nakamura said. I’ve seen our rookies work hard for Frontale from a young age until now and they’ve built this team. They’ve created such a strong Frontale that frankly I feel like it’s time for me to move on.”
Kawasaki’s stats, beyond those two double-digit winning streaks — a league first — speak for themselves: Their 75 points are a new J1 record and could reach as high as 87 by the time the season ends on Dec. 19, at which point they will have been in first place for 30 rounds.
Frontale leads the league in goals scored (79) and fewest goals allowed (25); their plus-54 goal difference is more than three times that of the next-best team in the league, Nagoya Grampus at plus-15.
“It was a season of magnificent records, but more importantly it will remain in the memory of the fans and supporters who have always backed Kawasaki Frontale,” said J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai. “The league’s four-month suspension and the restrictions placed on active support were new experiences for all of us. But in the midst of it all, Frontale enchanted us with their exceptional scoring ability and the emergence of young players who rose to the occasion to help win big games.”
With the building blocks of a dynasty already in place, Kawasaki’s focus next year will likely turn to the Asian Champions League, where the team has progressed no further than the quarterfinals. But another empty space in the trophy cabinet could be filled as early as New Year’s Day, with Oniki’s men having been seeded into the Dec. 27 semifinals of the Emperor’s Cup.
“It’s a special thing to play on Jan. 1 (in the final) and lift the trophy,” said Akihiro Ienaga, the 2018 J1 MVP who scored a hat trick on Wednesday to raise his season total to nine goals. “We only have so much time left to play with Kengo, and I hope we can end the season with everyone smiling after we win one last title.”
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