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Kawasaki Frontale’s players walked onto the Todoroki Stadium pitch on Wednesday under a clear blue sky almost perfectly matching their uniforms.

By the time they stepped off, the sun was already low in the sky in Kawasaki — as if to make way for yet another gold star as the team secured its fourth J. League first-division title in five years.

Brazilian defender Jesiel’s 34th-minute goal — toed in from inside the six-meter box following a corner kick — wasn’t enough for a win after Urawa Reds salvaged a 1-1 draw through Hiroki Sakai’s last-minute equalizer.

But Frontale received the help it needed from Gamba Osaka, whose 1-0 win over Yokohama F. Marinos left the second-place side unable to catch up to their Kanagawa Prefecture rival in the remaining four rounds of the season.

“It’s terrific that we were able to clinch the title in front of so many fans,” Frontale manager Toru Oniki said of the sold-out crowd of 11,603 at Todoroki. “It would have been nice to win today, but this championship represents the sum of our efforts over the last year and I’m very proud of the team.”

Both Frontale and F. Marinos now boast four J1 championships, trailing only Kashima Antlers’ eight. Yet while Kashima remains the only J. League side to win three straight titles (2007-09), Kawasaki’s run of four in five seasons is unmatched, adding to its credentials as Japan’s reigning soccer dynasty.

Kawasaki Frontale players celebrate after clinching a second consecutive J1 League title on Wednesday.  | KYODO
Kawasaki Frontale players celebrate after clinching a second consecutive J1 League title on Wednesday. | KYODO

It’s a concept that may, even now, be hard to grasp for the team’s veteran players, many of whom arrived when Frontale still had a reputation as a “silver collector” after repeated runner-up finishes in league and cup competitions.

“Although I didn’t take part in many games when I joined the club (in 2009), I felt like there was something we needed to win the title,” defender Kyohei Noborizato said. “By winning our first title (in 2017) I gained belief in what we were trying to accomplish.

“No matter how many times we win the title, I think that we have a lot of players who remember when we couldn’t do it.”

The 2021 season presented fans with another Frontale masterclass, with the team dropping just 17 points out of a possible 102 thus far. Kawasaki’s 85 points after 34 rounds would be record-breaking under regular circumstances, but the team can rise as high as 97 in this year’s expanded J1 campaign — which features 20 clubs instead of the usual 18 after the J. League chose not to implement relegation last year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kawasaki’s performance throughout 2021 is all the more impressive considering the number of key players who have left the team over the last 10 months. Frontale started the season without legendary playmaker Kengo Nakamura, who retired at the end of 2020, and midfielder Hidemasa Morita, who joined Portugal’s Santa Clara in the winter. The summer transfer window saw two more departures, with young attackers Ao Tanaka (Fortuna Dusseldorf) and Kaoru Mitoma (Brighton & Hove Albion) both joining Morita in Europe.

But just like in 2020, Oniki — leading one of the league’s deepest squads — took full advantage of new pandemic-era rules that gave him access to five substitutes per game.

Kawasaki Frontale's Jesiel (left) celebrates after scoring in the first half against Urawa Reds on Wednesday.  | KYODO
Kawasaki Frontale’s Jesiel (left) celebrates after scoring in the first half against Urawa Reds on Wednesday. | KYODO

“After Ao and Kaoru left, the players seemed to stagnate a bit, but that was a point where we had to be patient,” Oniki said. “Even if we didn’t have as much momentum, we knew that if we were patient we would be able to move forward again.

“Of course we have great players, so if you believe in them they’ll get good results. That’s what I’ve always believed over the last five years.”

A key turning point for Kawasaki came in August after the league’s Olympic break, with two draws followed by a defeat to Avispa Fukuoka that indicated the defending champion was on shaky ground.

But to the disappointment of the J1’s other 19 teams there was simply too much talent and experience on hand to slow Frontale down, and only F. Marinos had a chance to catch up as the campaign rounded the home stretch.

“Last year we won a lot of blowouts, but this year there were more close results and draws,” Noborizato said. “We had difficult times during this season but we stayed on our path.”

With both Frontale and F. Marinos having secured spots in the 2022 ACL, focus will now turn to the final ticket to the continental competition as well as the relegation dogfight at the bottom of the table. Just six points separated 20th-place Yokohama FC and 16th-place Shonan Bellmare heading into Wednesday’s games, with four teams set to drop to the J2 at the end of the season in order to return the J1 to 18 participants.

The sight of a half-full stadium on Wednesday in Kawasaki was a reassuring one to the J. League, which has battled to keep players and fans safe from the virus while also working to protect clubs from the financial impact of the pandemic. With vaccination rates in Japan topping 70%, the government is allowing sporting events to raise their capacities to 50% in November, with limits reduced further for fans who are vaccinated or present proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

League officials have expressed optimism that full-capacity crowds will return in time for the 2022 season, with the hopes that fans will also be allowed to cheer and sing — forms of support that have been banned during the pandemic in order to prevent the spread of virus-carrying droplets.

“Today, more than anything, I felt the clapping of the fans throughout the stadium was pushing the players forward,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said in a statement. “I hope Frontale will be able to keep playing its style of soccer through the end of the season.”

Kawasaki and Urawa could meet one more time this year should they both advance to the Dec. 19 final of the Emperor’s Cup. Frontale will host Oita Trinita in the Dec. 12 semifinal, while the Reds will face Cerezo Osaka on the same day.

Kawasaki Frontale players celebrate after clinching their second consecutive J1 League title on Wednesday in Kawasaki.  | KYODO
Kawasaki Frontale players celebrate after clinching their second consecutive J1 League title on Wednesday in Kawasaki. | KYODO

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