Man, I really have to do better at this regular blogging thing, but that’s what happens in JLPT season.
In any case, the regular season is over. In line with predictions I made early on in the season on the RSN forums, FC Tokyo did make the top 6 – in fact, the team ended in 6th place, when it could have reached as high as 4th were it not for a tragic fall-from-ahead loss at Chiba to end the season. JEF Chiba’s shock win saved the team from relegation, meaning that we’ve been the dramatic foil for relegation-threatened teams for two years in a row now. Which, I’ll be honest, is kinda amusing in a “if I didn’t laugh I’d be crying” way. Hell, I’m from Philadelphia, who knows more about abject futility than us?
A week earlier, the final home game of the year was held at Ajinomoto Stadium; a match against Albirex Niigata that ended with an exhilerating goal as time was running out. In stark contrast to 2007’s home finale, which resembled the atmosphere of a funeral, this year’s home finale had a palpable sense of celebration attached. Manager Hiroshi Jofuku has gotten FCT to play almost at its full potential, and with the nucleus of the team largely expected to return next season, the eyes of the J.League world will undoubtedly be on Ajinomoto Stadium. Though the team has some weaknesses it needs to overcome, nobody can dispute that FC Tokyo will be a contender for the championship in 2009.
What needs to change? That depends on what aspects of the squad you choose to look at. By virtue of its solid youth program, FCT doesn’t need transfers as desperately as other teams in the league, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed. The most perplexing issue is at forward – should Cabore have another foreign strongman – either South American or European – to give him some relief and help the team in the opposing goal area, where they seem to get caught up frequently? Akamine, despite taking half as many shots as Cabore, was FCT’s leading goal-scorer of the year and one of the top 2 or 3 Japanese goal-scorers this season. The odd man out seems to be Sota Hirayama, who showed flashes of brilliance this season but has yet to show enough consistency to earn a regular starting role.
One lineup change that will be affecting all squads is the addition of a forth foreign player slot – while teams were previously limited to having 3 foreign players on their roster, the fourth has to come from an ACL country. Most teams will probably go to Korea, which has sent its fair share of players to Japan, or to Australia, which seems to have one of the best performances aside from Japanese teams in the ACL.
In any case, the season is not over yet – this Saturday (the 20th) FCT plays Shimizu S-Pulse for the billionth (actually 5th) time this year up in Sendai in an Emperors Cup quarterfinal match. The team hasn’t had very good luck against Shimizu (0-1-3 this year), but with the fourth and final ACL bid still up for grabs, one would be foolish to take anything for granted. Amazing J indeed.
In player news, Yuto Nagatomo has been nominated as both Outstanding Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year by J.League, honors well-deserved. Here’s hoping he takes some silverware home!
In other site news, I’ve been asked by Gora over at JapaneseSoccer.net, an English-language J.League news blog that’s now in beta, to write a special piece about the deteriorating situation at Tokyo Verdy. For those of you who haven’t been following, Verdy has not only been demoted to J2 but their supporters are now declaring open rebellion on the board of directors. This includes urging a season ticket boycott, an act virtually unheard of in Japan. Part 1 of my essay is up now, with parts 2 and 3 to follow. I assume by the time anyone reads this Gora will have the formatting fixed, so stay tuned.