2016 J3 Club Licenses Awarded

Today was a big day in the Japanese football calendar as the four JFL clubs aiming for promotion to the J.League discovered the fate of their applications for J3 Club Licenses. One club received the bad news that nobody wanted to hear so just three remain in the hunt.

Pole Position: Kagoshima United

Kagoshima United formed less than two years ago when the prefecture’s two big clubs, bitter rivals Volca Kagoshima and FC Kagoshima, put their differences aside and became one to put themselves in a better position to achieve their shared dream and the club is now undoubtedly one of the fastest rising in the country.

In just their first season as a single unit, Kagoshima finished 3rd in the JFL – ahead of current J3 leaders Renofa Yamaguchi – and they have continued that great start into 2014 as they currently sit 4th in the overall table. This is an important fact as a top four finish in that overall table is one of the primary requirements for promotion to J3.

The club also benefits from fantastic support in the stands with an average attendance of 2,078 from their 15 home matches so far (Yamaguchi’s average last season was 2,297 for comparison). This is a key figure for the club as one of the other primary requirements for promotion is an average attendance of at least 2,000. With 3 home matches still to play, the club needs to welcome just 5,062 fans (an average of 1,687) to pass this hurdle.

If the club finishes in the top four and achieves that easy attendance goal then the rest is likely to be no more than a formality and we will be welcoming them as the 54th member of the current J.League family in March.

The Contenders: Azul Claro Numazu and Nara Club

Two clubs are waiting in the wings for Kagoshima to suffer a slip up to allow them their chance at an unlikely promotion. Of these, Shizuoka’s Numazu are in the best position as they currently lie in 5th place overall and are just 5 points behind Kagoshima. Their attendance figures aren’t yet up to scratch with them having an average of just 1,592 so far but the recent acquisition of former Japan international and local hero Masashi ‘Gon’ Nakayama, who came out of retirement to join the club and celebrated his 48th birthday yesterday, is sure to help them put bums on seats. There’s also the age-old trick of giving away free tickets as a last-ditch effort to help them across the line should they get a sniff at 4th place.

Nara’s hopes look a lot slimmer as they currently sit in 6th and would have to not only pass Numazu but also overcome an eight point gap to Kagoshima. They also have a similarly poor attendance record so far with an average of 1,575 and they lack an ageing star name to help draw people in. I feel fairly safe in saying that we won’t be seeing them in J3 in 2016.

The Fallen: Vanraure Hachinohe

Sadly, Hachinohe will not be joining the J.League next year despite an incredible season in which they have pretty much guaranteed themselves a top four finish and qualified for the championship match after winning the first stage. Their application for a J3 Club License was rejected for the second year in a row and their stadium was the culprit yet again as they failed to rectify the problems that held them back last year. The club have promised fans that this will not happen again next year but by then their chance may have passed if they aren’t able to repeat their success on the pitch. It’s such a shame that a great season has ended in disappointment for them when those in charge knew exactly what needed fixing.

The Future

The three clubs will discover their final fate with the conclusion of the JFL season in November and an announcement on which club, if any, has obtained promotion will be made in the same month. The J3 clubs that applied for J2 Club Licenses will discover their fate on Tuesday (September 29) and the remaining clubs will find out if they have managed to keep hold of their J3 Club Licenses in October, although it is not expected that any of them will fail to do so.

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Emperor’s Cup: Round 1 – Sunday

Yesterday saw 23 teams book their places in the second round but there are still 13 spots in next week’s schedule to be filled in, which will be done today. I’ve got six ties that I’ll be keeping a close eye on today, with a total of 9 clubs to root for.

Akita-Fukushima-1
The first of those six matches is one of three that pit J3 clubs against each other as two of the Tohoku clubs go head to head in Akita. Fukushima qualified with ease last weekend following a 4-0 win over Primeiro Fukushima but that looked like a close tie compared to Akita’s 9-0 triumph over TDK Shinwakai.

Akita fans will be hoping that their prowess in front of goal against TDK was a sign of things to come rather than a blip following a run of four blanks in the league but they will know that Fukushima will prove to be a much sterner test. If they can use the fact that this is a one-off cup tie to put thoughts of their league struggles to one side then they may have a chance but it may not be so easy to blank out the pain of a run of 12 games without victory.

Fukushima have enjoyed 2015 much more than Akita but they too have had problems getting the job done lately with just a single win and two goals in their last six. This poor run has seen them slip down the table and risk dropping out of the mid-table battle so perhaps they will be looking for a cup run to reignite their season. If their class of 2015 can emulate the class of 2012, which defeated two J.League sides to reach the fourth round, then they will have done excellently.

Fukushima will take solace in the fact that they won 3-2 in June, the last time they paid a visit to Akita, whilst also picking up a point in their other meeting earlier in the season. Akita, meanwhile, will want to avoid further embarrassment at the hands of another Tohoku club.

The winners of this tie will travel to Niigata for a meeting with Albirex Niigata of J1 in the second round.

Morioka-Machida-1
There’s another all-J3 clash taking place in Tohoku as Morioka welcome promotion-chasing Machida to Iwate.

Morioka’s J3 honeymoon ended with a thud when they began 2015 with failure to win in any of their first 11 matches before finally tasting victory over Fujieda in May. Since then, they have gone on to make up for lost time and have dragged themselves back into contention for a respectable finish. The goal that saw them edge local rival Ganju Iwate to qualify for the cup last weekend ended a three-match drought that had begun following their shock victory over Machida, however, so they will need to up their game again if they are to repeat that feat.

Machida are making their first appearance in the Emperor’s Cup since reaching the fourth round in 2012. Their qualifying campaign wasn’t very impressive as they scraped past two university sides to set up this match but they will hopefully raise their level now that they have reached the cup proper and are up against fellow J3 opposition and a side that they will be aiming for revenge against.

Respective league positions aside, it would seem that Morioka hold the upper hand in this fixture following that win from a month ago and a 0-0 draw earlier in the season. Machida’s first task is to find a way to breach the Morioka defence for the first time this season.

The prize for the winners of this tie is the chance to test themselves against J1 side Nagoya Grampus.

Hachinohe-1
Aomori will be the setting for another interesting tie that’s taking place in Tohoku as JFL side Vanraure Hachinohe host Sendai University. Hachinohe were the first team without an automatic place to qualify for the cup, doing so as champions of the JFL first stage while Sendai University defeated JFL opposition in Sony Sendai to reach this point.

Hachinhohe have been impressive so far this season and are closing in on a place in J3 for 2016 while also having a shot at the JFL title as a result of their performance in the first half of the season. Their fine results have continued into the second stage but defeat to Azul Claro Numazu in their last match has left them 3 points adrift of the top. Regardless, they are a strong side that relies on a solid defence – the best in the JFL – to get the job done.

Sendai University shouldn’t fear Hachinohe, however, following their victory over the Sony Sendai side that currently tops the JFL second stage and has spent the whole season on a level footing with the Aomori club, only losing out on the first stage title on goal difference. Their 3-1 win over Sony last weekend was an impressive result and one that will give them confidence of another JFL scalp.

If they win, Hachinohe will deny their opponents a Sendai derby and progress to face Vegalta Sendai of J1.

Nagano-Yamaguchi-1
The third all-J3 clash sees the battle of two orange armies in Nagano as 3rd-placed Nagano face leaders Yamaguchi at their sleek and beautiful home ground.

Nagano are a team in a slight bit of turmoil following the resignation of manager Naohiko Minobe. The 10 points that they have dropped from a possible 15 recently have cost them dearly in the promotion race and they now find themselves with a whopping 16 point gap to Yamaguchi. For a team with such a strong collection of attackers, goals have been strangely hard to come by for them in 2015 and that continued into last weekend when they took 80 minutes to break down regional league side Ueda Gentian before finally adding a second to secure the win. A repeat today simply won’t do.

The story of Yamaguchi’s season so far hardly needs to be told. The J3 debutants have blown away all opposition and look to be storming to the title unchallenged. Their front line has been exactly what Nagano’s should be – powerful, clinical and anything but profligate. They proved that again last weekend, racing to a 4-0 lead in the first half before uncharacteristically easing off – perhaps mindful of the potential tough tie that awaited them this week. If their attack is on form again this weekend then I can’t see them losing.

Having said that, the pair have been even in their two meetings so far this year with the home side coming out on top in each. Nagano’s 2-1 win back in April – Yamaguchi’s first defeat of the season – was a long time ago, however, and I feel that Yamaguchi will crave the chance to avenge that blip.

The winning side will get the chance to travel to Kansai to test themselves against J1 opposition in Vissel Kobe.

Ryukyu-1
FC Ryukyu might have been expecting to face another J3 club themselves but will instead face Toyama Shinjo Club of the Hokushinetsu Football League, who defeated Kataller Toyama on penalties to qualify for the cup.

Ryukyu’s league campaign has been a strong one so far with them currently sitting in 5th place. It is a campaign that has been built on the solid foundations of a great home record but with just two away wins they are vulnerable on the road. This weakness could be their undoing in the cup as the schedulers have handed them a trip to Toyama for the opening round. Their fans shouldn’t give up hope just yet though as Toyama just so happens to have been the setting for their most recent success on the road – a 1-0 victory over Kataller last month – so the draw may yet be in their favour.

The Shinjo Club caused an upset last weekend in denying Kataller a place in the first round so they will come into this match confident of their chances. They are the best of the rest in their league, sitting in fourth place with no chances of promotion so the cup is their last chance to shine this season and they likely won’t go down without a fight, which should make for an interesting tie.

FC Ryukyu will get the chance to travel to Ibaraki and face Kashima Antlers of J1 if they avoid an upset.

Maebashi-1
The team I’ll be following with the toughest task today is undoubtedly Tonan Maebashi. Their 4-0 win over Gunma Teachers last weekend saw them qualify for the cup for the first time in three years and set them up for a meeting with J2 opposition.

Maebashi’s season so far has been a disaster with them struggling to compete in their native Kanto Soccer League. Promotion to the JFL is out of the question now so all they have left to play for is pride and there’s no better way to boost that pride than by becoming giant-killers. Whether or not they have what it takes to cause an upset and grab headlines will only be known on the day but they’ll certainly give it their best shot.

Yokohama aren’t pulling up any trees in their respective league either and their main concern will be to avoid sinking into a relegation tussle with them sitting just six points clear of 21st-placed FC Gifu. They’re in the weird position of not knowing if they should attempt a cup run to boost morale or rest key players to focus on survival so it will be interesting to see what sort of side they put out. A weakened one may just give Maebashi that extra kick needed to really go all out for glory.

An unlikely victory for Maebashi would see them head to Hokkaido for a clash with another J2 side in Consadole Sapporo in the next round.

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Emperor’s Cup: Round 1 – Saturday

The Emperor’s Cup gets underway this weekend with 23 of 36 first round ties taking place on Saturday. As usual, I’ll be focusing on a select bunch of teams as they try to earn themselves the much-desired title of giant-killers. Five such teams kick off their campaigns on Saturday against opponents from varying levels of the pyramid.

Nara-Fujieda-1
Nara is the setting for the only meeting between clubs from J3 and the JFL as Nara Club take on Fujieda MYFC. Both of these sides qualified comfortably last weekend after racking up four-goal leads although Fujieda almost managed to mess up against Honda and ended up only winning by a single-goal margin after their JFL opposition mounted a comeback attempt that just fell short in the end.

For Nara, this is the seventh year in a row that they have entered the Emperor’s Cup and they will be aiming to repeat their success of 2014, which saw them knock out J3 opposition in the first round with a 3-1 win over Fukushima United and go on to defeat J1 side Vegalta Sendai before a hammering at the hands of Jubilo Iwata in the third round. They are performing alright in the JFL so far this season and have an outside chance of promotion to J3 next season so they’ll be relishing the chance to test themselves against a team of J3 calibre.

Fujieda are making their third appearance in the cup and third in a row having qualified in both 2013 and 2014. They have never failed to reach the second round but they faced regional side Arterivo Wakayama for both of their previous first round victories and needed extra time to progress on each occasion. A high-flying JFL side like Nara will surely give them a greater test though they should be confident of victory after their performance against a Honda side that has been performing to a higher standard in the JFL this season.

With struggling J1 outfit Shimizu S-Pulse awaiting the winner of this tie, there is a huge incentive to come out on top and a chance for the winner to put together a bit of a cup run.

Kagoshima-1
Kagoshima United and Matsue City have been awaiting this tie for some time having both qualified more than a month ago. Both are making their second appearance in the cup with Kagoshima making it two from two since coming into existence and Matsue appearing for the first time in three years having debuted in 2012.

Kagoshima will welcome the change of pace after hitting a bit of a slump in the JFL of late but they are still a very strong side and will be quietly confident going into this tie. Last year, they handed out a free lesson in football to Tokushima Municipal High School with a 7-1 win before a narrow 1-0 loss to Tokushima Vortis in the following round but this year’s draw has handed them a tougher test.

Matsue are the current leaders and reigning champions of the Chugoku Soccer League, where they are undefeated With 58 goals scored and only 4 conceded. The quality of opposition is nowhere near the level of Kagoshima, however, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions but as a club with aspirations of joining the JFL they will hope to be competitive and at least give a good account of themselves if not use their home advantage to cause an upset.

The prize for the winner of this tie is a trip to Kawasaki Frontale of J1.

Tottori-1
The Torigin Bird Stadium will be playing host to a tie that was a regular staple of the J2 calendar prior to Tottori’s relegation from the second tier in 2013 as they host Fagiano Okayama. It’s a bit of an unfortunate draw for Tottori as it makes them the only J3 side to face J2 opposition.

Qualification was a fairly simple affair for Tottori as they safely saw off prefectural opposition in Tochigi Dreams but Okayama will be a much tougher challenge for a team that has struggled in J3 this season. An upset and good cup run might lift their spirits for a late run towards a much better league finish but that’s about all they have to play for now.

Okayama aren’t doing too hot themselves and could yet be dragged down into the J2 relegation fight although it seems unlikely that I’ll be welcoming them to J3 next season. Regardless, they may view the cup as a distraction that they can’t afford, which could play into Tottori’s hands.

The winners will move on to face either Roasso Kumamoto or Fukuoka University so a place in the third round might not be beyond their capabilities.

Tochigi-1
Tochigi Uva reached the cup for the third season in a row with victory over Vertfee Takahara Nasu last weekend and now face one of the toughest challenges of the round as they head to Saitama to play J2 leaders Omiya Ardija.

Tochigi have enjoyed a mini renaissance since the start of the JFL second stage but nothing they have faced so far this season will have prepared them for this tie. Three of their six appearances in the cup so far have seen them exit to J.League opposition with the most recent being in Saitama against the Squirrels’ sworn enemies, Urawa Reds. If they are to do the unthinkable and finally claim victory over league opposition then it would be one of the shocks of the round.

Omiya have coped very well with their relegation from the top flight and look like dead certs for a quick return as they currently sit 14 points clear at the top of J2. They have lifted their foot off the gas a little lately with no win in two games since a narrow win over the other Tochigi in early August so perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope.

Tochigi’s prize, should they claim it, would be another game in Saitama against either Tokyo Verdy or Japan Soccer College.

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Emperor’s Cup: The Qualifiers

All teams from J1, J2 and the JFL first stage winners all receive automatic entry to the Emperor’s Cup but the rest of Japan’s hopefuls have to navigate through their prefecture’s main cup in order to book their place. The majority of these cup competitions are reaching a conclusion this weekend ahead of the first round proper next weekend.

Below is a list of all the qualifiers from Japan’s 47 prefectures:

Hokkaido: Sapporo University (Hokkaido Students League, Div 1)
Aomori: Reinmeer Aomori (Tohoku Soccer League, Div 1)
Iwate: Grulla Morioka (J3)
Miyagi: Sendai University (Tohoku University League, Div 1)
Akita: Blaublitz Akita (J3)
Yamagata: Yamagata University Medical Faculty (Tohoku University League, Div 2B)
Fukushima: Fukushima United (J3)
Ibaraki: Ryutsu Keizai University (Kanto Soccer League, Div 1)
Tochigi: Tochigi Uva (JFL)
Gunma: Tonan Maebashi (Kanto Soccer League, Div 1)
Saitama: Tokyo International University (Kanto University League, Div 2)
Chiba: Juntendo University (Kanto University League, Div 1)
Tokyo: Machida Zelvia (J3)
Kanagawa: Toin University of Yokohama (Kanto University League, Div 1)
Yamanashi: Nirasaki Astros (Yamanashi Super League)
Nagano: Nagano Parceiro (J3)
Niigata: Japan Soccer College (Hokushinetsu Football League, Div 1)
Toyama: Toyama Shinjo Club (Hokushinetsu Football League, Div 1)
Ishikawa: Hokuriku University (Hokushinetsu University League, Div 1)
Fukui: Saurcos Fukui (Hokushinetsu Football League, Div 1)
Shizuoka: Fujieda MYFC (J3)
Aichi: Maruyasu Okazaki (JFL)
Mie: Yokkaichi University (Tokai Students League, Div 1)
Gifu: FC Gifu Second (Tokai Soccer League, Div 1)
Shiga: MIO Biwako Shiga (JFL)
Kyoto: Ritsumeikan University (Kansai Students League, Div 1)
Osaka: FC Osaka (JFL)
Hyogo: Kwansei Gakuin University (Kansai Students League, Div 1)
Nara: Nara Club (JFL)
Wakayama: Arterivo Wakayama (Kansai Soccer League, Div 1)
Tottori: Gainare Tottori (J3)
Shimane: Matsue City (Chugoku Soccer League)
Okayama: Fagiano Okayama Next (JFL)
Hiroshima: Hiroshima University of Economics (Chugoku University League, Div 1)
Yamaguchi: Renofa Yamaguchi (J3)
Kagawa: Tadotsu FC (Shikoku Soccer League)
Tokushima: University of Tokushima Hippocrates (Tokushima Soccer League, Div 2)
Ehime: FC Imabari (Shikoku Soccer League)
Kochi: Kochi University (Shikoku University League, Div 1)
Fukuoka: Fukuoka University (Kyushu University League, Div 1)
Saga: Saga LIXIL (Kyushu Soccer League)
Nagasaki: Mitsubishi Nagasaki (Kyushu Soccer League)
Kumamoto: Kyushu Tokai University (Kyushu University League, Div 1)
Oita: Verspah Oita (JFL)
Miyazaki: JFC Miyazaki (Kyushu Soccer League)
Kagoshima: Kagoshima United (JFL)
Okinawa: FC Ryukyu (J3)

The full list of first round matches is as follows:

Saturday, August 29

13:00 – Maruyasu Okazaki vs Toin University of Yokohama
13:00 – MIO Biwako Shiga vs Arterivo Wakayama
13:00 – Nirasaki Astros vs Juntendo University
13:00 – Yokkaichi University vs Verspah Oita
13:00 – Consadole Sapporo vs Sapporo University
13:00 – Thespakusatsu Gunma vs FC Gifu Second
13:00 – Nara Club vs Fujieda MYFC
13:00 – Matsue City vs Kagoshima United
15:00 – Tokushima Vortis vs Fagiano Okayama Next
16:00 – Matsumoto Yamaga vs Saurcos Fukui
16:00 – Giravanz Kitakyushu vs JFC Miyazaki
16:00 – Roasso Kumamoto vs Fukuoka University
16:00 – Tochigi SC vs Ryutsu Keizai University
18:00 – V-Varen Nagasaki vs Mitsubishi Nagasaki
18:00 – Mito Hollyhock vs Reinmeer Aomori
18:00 – Cerezo Osaka vs FC Osaka
18:00 – Gainare Tottori vs Fagiano Okayama
18:00 – Jubilo Iwata vs Hokuriku University
18:00 – Omiya Ardija vs Tochigi Uva
18:00 – Tokyo Verdy vs Japan Soccer College
18:00 – JEF United Chiba vs Tokyo International University
19:00 – Oita Trinita vs Saga LIXIL
19:00 – Montedio Yamagata vs Yamagata University Medical Faculty

Sunday, August 30

13:00 – Blaublitz Akita vs Fukushima United
13:00 – Grulla Morioka vs Machida Zelvia
13:00 – Vanraure Hachinohe vs Sendai University
13:00 – FC Gifu vs Kwansei Gakuin University
16:00 – Zweigen Kanazawa vs FC Imabari
16:00 – Avispa Fukuoka vs Kyushu Tokai University
16:00 – Nagano Parceiro vs Renofa Yamaguchi
17:00 – Toyama Shinjo Club vs FC Ryukyu
18:00 – Yokohama FC vs Tonan Maebashi
18:00 – Kyoto Sanga vs Ritsumeikan University
19:00 – Ehime FC vs Tadotsu FC
19:00 – Kamatamare Sanuki vs Kochi University
19:00 – Hiroshima University of Economics vs University of Tokushima Hippocrates

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Emperor’s Cup Preview: Qualifiers

Once again, it’s that time of the year when the small fish in big lakes return to their home ponds to take on the even smaller fish who dream of causing an upset and qualifying for the Emperor’s Cup at their expense as the majority of Japan’s 47 prefectural championships come to a grand conclusion this weekend. Some teams have battled hard since the Spring for this opportunity while others, lucky enough to have a bye straight to the final, are playing their first match of their respective tournaments.

The final 32 places in the first round of the 2015 Emperor’s Cup are up for grabs this weekend with teams from all sorts of different levels and backgrounds taking part. As usual, I’ll be focusing on the J3 clubs and those in a position to join J3 in the near future as I preview the relevant matches.

Who has already qualified?

Due to the nature of the qualifying process, several teams have already booked their place in the first round of the cup. The first club to qualify was Vanraure Hachinohe in early June as a result of winning the first stage of the JFL, which gave them a special free ticket into the cup without the need of going through their local qualifiers. They will face either Sony Sendai or Sendai University next week.

Kagoshima United joined Hachinohe towards the end of June as a result of a 2-1 win over the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, which saw them win the Kagoshima Soccer Championship. They already know that their opponents in the first round will be Matsue City.

FC Ryukyu recently became the first J3 club to qualify having been crowned as champions of the Okinawa Soccer Championship for the sixth year in a row after recording a 4-1 win over Kaiho Bank SC. Ryukyu could face fellow J3 opposition next week as they are set to face either Kataller Toyama or Toyama Shinjo Club.

Who is already eliminated?

Unfortunately, some of our friends have already suffered the fate of failing to qualify for the big event. Azul Claro Numazu always faced a big challenge to claim their place in the cup due to coming from one of the most competitive prefectures. Most clubs at their level are the big fish in their local pond but poor old Numazu entered the Shizuoka Soccer Championship as third favourites behind fellow JFL club and giants of the level Honda FC and Fujieda MYFC of J3. They scraped through their quarter final match on penalties but were no match for Honda in the semi final and exited the cup following a 3-1 defeat.

Kanagawa is also always a tough prefecture to call given that it contains not one but two J3 clubs in SC Sagamihara and YSCC. The final of the Kanagawa Football Championship takes place on Saturday but, remarkably, neither club will feature in the event as both fell at the semi final stage to university opposition earlier this week. YSCC were beaten 2-1 in the first semi final by Toin University of Yokohama, ending their defence of the title, before SC Sagamihara were humbled by the same scoreline later that evening against Senshu University.

Still to come…

The remaining twelve J3 and 100 Year Plan clubs will feature in prefectural finals up and down the country this weekend, each facing opposition from varying levels of the Japanese football pyramid. Some of the names will be familiar to all while others may be familiar to only the most avid followers of the lower league scene.

Tochigi-Q
The only match of interest to me on Saturday sees a clash of the two heavyweights of Tochigi prefecture. These two sides have shared the last six titles between them and have both featured in the final for five years in a row. Tochigi have the historical upper hand with four wins to one and have been crowned as champions in each of the last two years. Takahara Nasu, currently 7th in the Kanto Soccer League, have failed to score in either of those two matches so they will go into this match as huge underdogs.

Morioka-Q
I doubt you could get odds on prefectural cups in Japan but even if you could then betting on Morioka here would be akin to printing money. Iwate may hold the prefecture name but they certainly don’t hold the bragging rights, having previously lost to Morioka twice in the Iwate Soccer Championship final. They aren’t alone, however, as Morioka have won the final in each of their eight appearances with the last seven coming in a row stretching back to 2008. This is a repeat of last year’s final, which saw Morioka run out as comfortable 3-0 winners. The chances of Iwate, currently 2nd in the Tohoku Soccer League, winning are exceedingly slim.

Akita-Q
The Akita Soccer Championship final is also a repeat of the previous season as Akita again face TDK. Akita’s stranglehold on this tournament is even more impressive than that of Morioka in Iwate as they have won it every time they entered since forming in 2010 while the club that they formed from, TDK Soccer Club, had won it in all but one (2001) of the twelve previous years dating back to 1998. TDK currently reside in the 2nd tier of the Tohoku Soccer League where they sit atop the northern division so it’s highly likely that Akita will be taking home the trophy yet again this year.

Fukushima-Q
The last of the Tohoku finals that I’ll be focusing on features a very familiar story. Fukushima United have won the Fukushima Soccer Tournament in each of the last seven years, which dates back to when they began to emerge as one of the regions big fish with their promotion to the top flight of the Tohoku Soccer League in 2008. Their opponents this year are also the very same club that they faced in the final last year, Primeiro. That match ended 4-0 so Primeiro, currently 5th in the Tohoku Soccer League, have got a lot to do if they hope to cause an upset.

Maebashi-Q
We leave Tohoku and return to Kanto for an interesting matchup between Gunma’s biggest regional club, Maebashi, and a surprise face on the scene in Gunma Teachers Soccer Club. Gunma have navigated their way through four rounds to reach this point, defeating Maebashi’s reserve side on the way, which is a remarkable feat given that they currently sit 6th in the Gunma Soccer League – two levels below Maebashi. You can be forgiven for expecting this to be another one-sided affair but that may not be the case as Maebashi have been known to struggle in this competition having appeared in all but one of the last eight finals yet only winning twice. Most of these failures can be put down to playing second fiddle to the now-defunct former JFL side Arte Takasaki but two years ago they lost to Thespakusatsu Gunma’s reserves and then last year had the embarrassment of losing to their own reserve side. This one may not be so cut and dry.

Machida-Q
Machida’s tale is one of hardship and disappointment. They have only won the Tokyo Soccer Tournament on one occasion (in 2011) and have failed to qualify for the Emperor’s Cup in each of the last two years since their short spell in J2, not even qualifying for the final in either. This year they scraped through by the skin of their teeth with a win over Toyo University on penalties in the semi final. Their opponents, the prestigious Waseda University, are a side with a storied history in the Emperor’s Cup; the university, which counts Japanese football legend Kunishige Kamamoto amongst its many notable alumni, has won the cup on four occasions and is the only non-league side to win it since league football was introduced in the 1960s. The 2015 team probably isn’t going to emulate that feat but their position of 4th in the top flight of Kanto university football suggests that they will be an even tougher opponent for Machida given that Toyo are currently 4th in the second division. Machida fans might want to prepare for the worst.

Nagano-Q
Nagano are returning to the Nagano Soccer Championship this season after being able to avoid the hassle last season due to qualifying for the Emperor’s Cup through their great performance in 2013. They will be facing the reigning champions in Ueda, currently 5th in Hokushinetsu Football League, who won the tournament in their absence last year. Nagano had won the previous two tournaments, including a 5-0 win over Ueda in 2013, following the departure of their long-term nemesis Matsumoto Yamaga who had beaten them in four straight finals between 2008 and 2011. The likelihood of Ueda defending their title is not very high but Nagano are in a bit of a crisis at the moment so you never know.

Toyama-Q
Kataller Toyama’s relegation last season ended their six year spell in J2 and with it the luxury of an automatic place in the cup and so, as with Tottori last year, they now face the return to a prefectural cup that they thought they had long since left behind. They have only played in the Toyama Soccer Championship on one previous occasion – 2008, the year they formed from a merger of two other clubs and also the year they were promoted to J2 – but they did manage to win it and will be hoping to add title number two this weekend. Their opponents are Toyama’s second club, the Shinjo Club, who are currently 4th in the Hokushinetsu Football League. They will be looking to claim a sixth consecutive title having profited greatly from Kataller’s absence but this one may just be a step too far for them.

Fujieda-Q
Fujieda have arguably the toughest test of the weekend ahead of them as they face Honda of the JFL. The two sides have met in the final in the two previous seasons with Fujieda coming out on top both times – their only successes in the competition so far following three successive final defeats – including last year’s shock 7-2 thumping. Honda, currently 3rd in the JFL second stage, will surely be out for revenge this weekend but Fujieda should be confident of a third title given their recent league form. Either way, this will surely be one of the matches to look out for.

Nara-Q
Much like the majority of Tohoku, Nara prefecture tends to be a one-club area. Nara Club have claimed the Nara Soccer Championship title in each of the last six years and there is little to suggest that they won’t make it seven this weekend. Their opposition is Tenri University, who currently sit 5th in Block A of the 2nd division of Kansai’s university league and whose most notable footballing alumni is probably former Gamba Osaka goalkeeper Naoki Matsuyo – a man who won everything there is to win in the domestic game. Tenri did take Nara to extra time in the semi finals last season but the JFL side’s superior level shone through in the end and I’d expect the same to happen this year.

Tottori-Q
Gainare Tottori made a triumphant return to the Tottori Soccer Championship last year with victory over four-time reigning champions Yonago Kita High School. This time out they face Tottori Dreams, currently top of the Tottori Soccer League, which is a club that formed as an off-shoot when Gainare was formed from Tottori SC. As such, the two clubs have a close bond but that will surely go out of the window and the Dreams players would probably love nothing more than to upstage their J3 cousins. The likelihood of that happening is not very high, however, and Gainare are huge favourites for another title.

Yamaguchi-Q
Last but by no means least, we arrive all the way down in Yamaguchi prefecture for an interesting tie. Renofa are by far the biggest club side in their prefecture but the existence of Tokuyama has been a bit of a thorn in their side in recent years. The two sides have shared the title on nine of the last ten occasions with Renofa claiming five and Tokuyama claiming four, including the most recent title having defeated Renofa 2-1 after extra time. Neither side has defended the title since Renofa in 2011 so everything suggests that they will reclaim their local pride this year but Tokuyama, currently 3rd in Chugoku’s university league, will surely put up a fight.

Match Details

Saturday:

Tochigi Uva vs Vertfee Takahara Nasu (12:00)

Sunday:

Grulla Morioka vs Ganju Iwate (13:05)
Blaublitz Akita vs TDK Shinwakai (13:05)
Fukushima United vs Primeiro Fukushima (13:04)
Tonan Maebashi vs Gunma Teachers (13:00)
Machida Zelvia vs Waseda University (18:00)
Nagano Parceiro vs Ueda Gentian (13:03)
Kataller Toyama vs Toyama Shinjo Club (13:03)
Fujieda MYFC vs Honda (14:05)
Nara Club vs Tenri University (13:00)
Gainare Tottori vs Tottori Dreams (15:00)
Renofa Yamaguchi vs Tokuyama University (13:10)

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JFL Review: May

The first stage of the 2015 JFL season is almost over and one of the five ‘100 year Plan’ clubs is still in the race for the title but it’s perhaps not the club that you might expect.

Kagoshima United were the highest placed of our JFL friends the last time that I reported on matters below J3 but they suffered an awful month as they dropped 8 of the 15 available points, scoring just 3 goals in the process. I said last month that they could ill afford to drop too many more points and this has proven to be the case as their 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Honda at the weekend ended their slim hopes of finishing top. They now need to pick themselves up and prepare for the second half of the season and a push for at least a place in the top four.

The team of the month and the team that leads the way heading into the final round is, in fact, Vanraure Hachinohe. They sat in 6th the last time I checked in on them and I commented that they would find it hard to close their 5 point gap to the top due to having tough fixtures against FC Osaka and Nara Club on the horizon. They emerged victorious against both of those teams, however, and that gave them the initiative going into their final run of matches, which I had noted were all ones they should be winning. They actually dropped points in one of those matches – a 0-0 draw with Tochigi Uva – but that wasn’t enough to stop them finishing the month on top.

Hachinohe are now level on points with Sony Sendai at the summit but with a slightly better goal difference. They face rock bottom Fagiano Okayama Next, who have lost all but 2 of their matches so far and conceded 32 times in the process, on Saturday in their final match of the stage. Sendai’s job is a lot tougher as they travel to Nara on Sunday but they will go into that match knowing exactly how many goals they need to win by if Hachinohe defeat Okayama so that could work to their advantage. Should Hachinohe fail to win, they will need to rely on Sendai, Honda and Osaka all failing to win too.

Elsewhere in the JFL, Azul Claro Numazu went from having a great April to a dreadful May as they won just once and scored just twice. Despite this poor run, they only dropped 2 places from 4th to 6th and their hopes of ending the season in the top four remain alive and kicking. Nara Club’s May was equally as depressing for their fans as they too won just the once and failed to score in 3 of their 5 matches. They remained 7th in the table, however, so it wasn’t all too bad for them and they too remain in the race for a top four finish.

Tochigi Uva had their best month so far as they picked up 5 points, which kept them in 14th place. This included that impressive draw against Hachinohe and a 1-1 draw with Numazu, which saw them go unbeaten for 2 games for the first time in 2015. Their prospects of making the top four are still non-existent and just avoiding the bottom four would be a massive success.

June Dates
6th-7th: Round 15
20th-21st: Round 1 (2nd Stage)
27th-28th: Round 2

Meanwhile in Kanto…
Tonan Maebashi’s hopes of promotion to the JFL next season continue to look slim as they picked up just 5 points from 5 matches in the Kanto Soccer League and are now 11 down on leaders Vonds Ichihara with half of the season played. They now have a mid-season break to refresh themselves for the battle ahead but it would take a miracle for them to qualify for the promotion playoffs.

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J3 in Brief: Golden Week

The ‘Golden Week Sprint’ is often said to separate the men from the boys in Japanese football and, based on the past two weeks, I’m clearly still one of the boys. I couldn’t possibly have hoped to keep up with a new blog post for every round so instead I decided to wait until the dust had settled and write the following recap of the last five rounds of J3 action.

A lot has changed over the past two weeks but, quite remarkably, one thing that hasn’t changed is the name at the top of the table – Renofa Yamaguchi. Prior to the Golden Week action, I took a look at their upcoming fixtures and deduced that this would be the most important part of their season so far. Up until that point, their only major test had been against Gainare Tottori on the opening day and the teams that they had faced since were filling four of the bottom five places in the table. With a trip to Nagano Parceiro on the horizon and matches against SC Sagamihara and Fukushima United to come I wasn’t sure if they would make it through the holiday period without relinquishing their lofty position.

My real fear for Yamaguchi was that they were riding the crest of a wave and that it was perhaps the momentum that they had built up in the first few weeks that was keeping them going. I was interested to see how they would respond to their first setback and this opportunity came straight away as they surrendered their 100% record in Nagano. The wave seemed to have come crashing down onto some jagged rocks when they then found themselves 3-1 down at home to an FC Ryukyu side that had scored just once in three matches on the road but what followed was an important sign. Yamaguchi heads didn’t drop as expected and instead they were roared on by the three-thousand-strong crowd to a 4-3 win with Kazuhito Kishida grabbing the winner in added time.

That response, like a giant orange lighthouse, guided their wave around the rocks and it continues to surge on with three further victories since, including a confident 2-0 win over Sagamihara. The crazy idea of them mounting a title challenge has become a serious consideration with their lead at the top extended to five points and confidence flowing throughout their squad.

The chasing pack has retained the same composition over the past two weeks but Nagano have emerged as the main contenders after dropping just three points in a shock 1-0 defeat at home to Kataller Toyama – a run that has lifted them up into 2nd. Tottori remain in 3rd following three wins from their four matches over the holidays and are one of only two clubs other than Yamaguchi to currently be on a three-match winning streak (we’ll discuss the other club later).

Sagamihara and Machida Zelvia remain inside the top five but their continued participation in the title race is uncertain following a series of less than adequate performances. Sagamihara picked up just two wins and lost their other three matches to go from two points behind Yamaguchi to eight adrift. The promise that they displayed at the start of the season is beginning to fade away and they could be as low as 6th before they play again as the next round is their turn to sit out. Machida’s Golden Week wasn’t as bad – they were undefeated in their four matches but draws away to lowly Grulla Morioka and at home to Fukushima saw them fall nine points behind the leaders. They’ll have a chance to close that gap when they host Yamaguchi in a couple of weeks but for now their title chances look slim.

The battle in the middle ‘third’ of the table has started to heat up with Toyama taking command over Golden Week. The former J2 side struggled to adapt to life in a new division throughout March and early April but four wins from five – including a current run of three in a row – have seen them start to climb towards the right end of the table. Their win over Nagano aside, they have only defeated teams that you would expect them to, however, so it remains to be seen whether or not this change in form will see them join the promotion challenge.

Blaublitz Akita started Golden Week off fantastically with three straight wins and not a single goal conceded but defeats to Ryukyu and Tottori in their last two have stunted their ascend up the table in recent rounds. Ryukyu took nine points from their five fixtures too including their first away win of the campaign in the most recent round of fixtures. They have reached a season-high of 7th but are one of two sides yet to face a bye so could slip back down a bit soon. The other team in this pack, Fukushima, had a nightmare run that saw them pick up just four points and slip to 9th. They did face each of the top five over Golden Week, however, so this perhaps wasn’t such a bad return after all.

Golden Week also saw the emergence of a clearer bottom four. YSCC’s early season promise seems to have completely evaporated as they added just a single point to their tally and failed to find the net even once, making their Golden Week more like a Goalless Week. Fujieda MYFC didn’t fare much better – their only success came against Yokohama in the most recent round of fixtures. Their solitary goal in that match was their first of the holidays and only their second since scoring twice on the opening day but it did at least end their run of eight matches without victory.

The J.League Under-22 Selection continues to show no signs of improvement having picked up just a single point of their own through the goalless draw that also provided Yokohama’s only point. A 6-0 thumping at the hands of Machida saw their goal difference take another big hit while Nagano and Toyama also collected their customary three points as a reward for hosting this ‘team’.

The bottom spot continues to be filled by the ever-hapless Morioka as they too picked up just one point from five matches and only provided their fans with one goal to celebrate. Their run of ten matches without victory has eclipsed Yokohama’s run of seven last year to secure them the notoriety of the longest wait for a first win and equals Fukushima’s run from last season as the longest without victory in J3 history. As if that wasn’t depressing enough for the locals in Iwate, they then had to watch on as Ryota Doi, their talisman from last year who fired them to 5th place, scored his first ever goal for his new club against them.

Golden Week promises to separate the men from the boys and it certainly seems to have done a good job of it this season in J3. We learned that Yamaguchi are, in fact, men while early title pretenders Sagamihara are perhaps more likely to be teenagers not quite ready to make the leap into adulthood. Meanwhile, down towards the bottom we have four little boys who really need to go back to school. There’s still a lot of football to be played, however, as we approach the end of the first third of the season so there’s still plenty of time for growing up.

Next Round (May 17)
Fujieda MYFC vs Machida Zelvia
Fukushima United vs J.League Under-22 Selection
Gainare Tottori vs YSCC
Renofa Yamaguchi vs Grulla Morioka
FC Ryukyu vs Kataller Toyama
Nagano Parceiro vs Blaublitz Akita
Bye: SC Sagamihara

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