Japanese J.League Soccer Season Preview 2006

C. Ogawa previews the 2006 J.League season

With the national side set to travel to Germany for the World Cup this summer, until late May all eyes will be on the J.League, which kicked off its 13th season in March. Eighteen teams now round out the top division in Japanese professional soccer.

J.League: Teams

Albirex NiigataAlbirex Niigata

Passionately supported, Albirex are always fun to watch - if for no other reason than the carnival atmosphere at the Big Swan ground. Last year Albirex averaged 40,114 a game in the Big Swan. This year with Edmilson and youngster Kisho Yano up front, Niigata may score quite a bit. Whether it can defend will tell the tale of this season.

Coach
Jun Suzuki
Prediction
Fantastic support but mid-table at best.
Stadium
Big Swan World Cup Stadium (42,300)

Avispa Fukuoka

Avispa Fukuoka

Fukuoka is back in J1 after a five-year absence. They will struggle in the top flight. Without national team players or significant foreign talent, it should be a long season for the Kyushu club. For a city of its size and economic clout, Fukuoka should be able to field a better squad. Still, the team is young and could surprise.

Coach
Hiroshi Matsuda
Prediction
Will be fortunate to avoid relegation
Stadium
Hakatanomori Stadium (22,563)

Cerezo Osaka

Cerezo Osaka

Cerezo had the J1 title wrapped up with a minute to play in the final match of the season last November. All it had to do was hold on and not allow a goal. Which of course it promptly yielded. The result was a draw to FC Tokyo - and a fifth-place finish on goal difference. The air was sucked out of the 50,000 supporters in an instant. Will this year be any different? With Fabinho gone, things might even be worse.

Coach
Shinji Kobayashi
Prediction
Without a new forward, title hopes are only that. No real chance of winning it all. Mid-table.
Stadium
Nagai Stadium (50,000)

FC Tokyo

FC Tokyo

The youngest manager in the J.league, 38-year-old Alexandre Gallo, takes over this year, becoming the first foreign coach at FC Tokyo. The Brazilian will have one of the best non-national team players - Yasuyuki Konno (scorer of the goal that lost the title for Cerezo) - in Japan. Unfortunately, the team lost Akira Kaji to Gamba.

Coach
Alexandre Gallo
Prediction
Without a bonafide goal scorer, Gallo and company will finish in the middle to bottom of the table. Relegation is unlikely.
Stadium
Ajinomoto Stadium (50,000)

Gamba Osaka

Gamba Osaka

Champions thanks in part to Yasuyuki Konno's last-minute goal against rival Cerezo, Gamba however lost its most potent player: Araujo. The pint-sized Brazilian led the league in scoring, but returned home in the off-season. In addition, his partner up front Masashi Oguro transferred to the French second division. The addition of Akira Kaji, Magno Alves, and Ryuji Bando may soften that blow.

Coach
Akira Nishino
Prediction
Top three
Stadium
Banpaku Stadium (23,000)

JEF United

JEF United

Perennial 4th place finisher, JEF teases its fans with the possibility of greatness - but never quite gets there. No major personnel changes leave the team mostly the same. Up front is the burly Seiichiro Maki, who may be on his way to Germany this summer after many other pretenders have failed under national team coach Zico.

Coach
Ivan Osim
Prediction
4th place
Stadium
Fukuda Denshi Arena (18,500)

Kashima Antlers

Kashima Antlers

Along with Jubilo, the Antlers are one of two teams that could rightly be called a dynasty in Japan. That would have to be in the past tense, though. If has been five long years since Kashima won the League. As a result, Brazilian legend Cerezo was fired and in his place Paulo Autori, former head coach at Sao Paulo and Peru, was brought in. Rumor has it that his contract came to 100 million yen. Aside from the departure of Takayuki Suzuki for Red Star Belgrade, no major changes. Kashima has the best midfield in Japan, and in Mitsuo Ogasawara one of the best two players in Japan.

Coach
Paulo Autori
Prediction
Top three
Stadium
Kashima Stadium (18,500)

Kawasaki Frontale

Kawasaki Frontale

Frontale has in Juninho a goal machine. The lanky forward may run away with top scoring honors. Another key player will be Kengo Nakamura. Now in their second year in the top flight - this time around - Kawasaki looks a lot more secure than it did a year ago. Wide open football, a fan's team. They counter very well.

Coach
Takashi Sekizuka
Prediction
Will crush lowly teams, but lose to the Gambas. Mid-table.
Stadium
Todoroki Stadium (25,000)

Kyoto Purple Sanga

Kyoto Purple Sanga

Sanga is back in the top division after three years. They mauled their way through J2 last year, finishing 19 points ahead of second place Fukuoka.

However, J1 is a totally different beast. Sanga's leading goal getter, Paulinho, is tiny, prone to diving, and untested against more physical teams. This, and the team's defense, will be the key to the season.

Coach
Koichi Hashiratani
Prediction
Bottom end of the table, possible relegation.
Stadium
Nishikyogoku Stadium (20,242)

 

Jubilo IwataJubilo Iwata

Once proud Jubilo has seen its fortunes fade in recent years. Led by Japan's Olympic team coach Masakuni Yamamoto, the team has the power and talent to win.

It will not, however. Bobby Cullen, Fabricio, and Choi Yong Soo should make for exciting football. For the team to really succeed, though, Yamamoto has to jettison his aging stable of former national team stars: Gon Nakayama, Hiroshi Nanami, Toshihiro Hattori.

Coach
Masakuni Yamakawa
Prediction
Top 5
Stadium
Yamaha Stadium (16,893)

Nagoya Grampus Eight

Nagoya Grampus

The deep pockets of Toyota are never quite enough to take this team to the top. They spend and spend - and always manage to disappoint. This year should be more of the same. The team is strong throughout, including national team keeper Seigo Narazaki. How much longer will Nagoya fans endure a well paid team that produces so little?

Coach
Sef Vergoosen
Prediction
Bottom 5
Stadium
Mizuho Athletics Stadium (27,000)

Oita Trinita

Oita Trinita

Oita barely, just barely got the points necessary to avoid relegation last season. They did so courtesy of the youthful coach Chamusca, who engineered some of the biggest upsets of the 2005 season. Two of the better players, though, have departed, leaving the fans wondering what else Chamusca has up his sleeve. Another miracle would make a great movie, but reality has a way of messing things up. Still...

Coach
Pericles Chamusca
Prediction
Bottom 5
Stadium
Big Eye (43,000)

Omiya Ardija

Omiya Ardija

The "other" team in Saitama (the Reds are the premier club in the area) doesn't have the passionate followers, the fancy stadium, the national team lineup, or the raw talent - but it can play.

And in the off season the team brought in former Gamba forward Kota Yoshihara who will enliven things up front. A quick and deadly striker.

Coach
Toshiya Miura
Prediction
Middle of the table (with injuries to other teams, may climb higher)
Stadium
Komaba Stadium (21,500)

 

Sanfrecce HiroshimaSanfrecce Hiroshima

Playing in the massive Big Arch, Sanfrecce players will have no trouble hearing their own voices on the pitch as fans will certainly not fill the stands. And that is because, with the exception of Hisashi Sato, there won't be much to cheer about. A slew of once-greats and still-not-quite-theres fill out the team: Kazuyuki Toda, Ueslei, the Morisaki brothers, Yuichi Komano. The faithful are probably in for a long season.

Coach
Takeshi Ono
Prediction
Bottom three to relegation
Stadium
Hiroshima Big Arch (50,000)

Shimizu S-Pulse

Shimizu S-Pulse

Located in the cradle of Japanese football civilization - Shizuoka, which is home to many of the national side players - Shimizu often tends to fall short. Nearly relegated last season, S-Pulse had a dreadful second half of the season. Bringing in new blood should make things interesting this year. Interesting for whom is the question.

Coach
Kenta Hasegawa
Prediction
Bottom three to relegation
Stadium
Nihondaira (20,339)

Ventforet Kofu

Ventforet Kofu

This team is saddled with the worst name in the J.League and the distinction of being the last team to be promoted to the big time. Still, in Bare, they have a goal machine. And this team goes full throttle forward. The few times they make it onto national tv--i.e., when they are up against Urawa or Gamba or Yokohama--it is worth a watch. Always entertaining.

Coach
Takeshi Oki
Prediction
Bottom five to relegation
Stadium
Kose Sports Park (17,000)

Urawa Reds

Urawa Reds

This should be the year. The Reds are arguably the best team in Japan. With the return of Shinji Ono, the Reds may finally have found the last missing piece of the puzzle to go all the way. The starting lineup features amazing talent: Ono, Washington (who transferred from Tokyo), Alex Santos, Tulio, little Tatsuya Tanaka, Makoto Hasebe, and more. On top of it, Urawa has the most rabid fans in Japan. This may be the year. No, it should be the year.

Coach
Guido Buchwald
Prediction
First Place
Stadium
Saitama Stadium (63,700)

Yokohama F. Marinos

Yokohoma F. Marinos

The Marinos and Gamba are the two teams that have the best shot at stopping the Urawa Reds. Led by former national team coach Takeshi Okada, the team is led on the field by two national team regulars: Yuji Nakazawa in defense and Tatsuhiko Kubo up front. In addition, the speedy Daisuke Oku and Magrao will cause trouble for opposition. Much depends on Kubo's lower back. If he is healthy and in form, they could win it all.

Coach
Takeshi Okada
Prediction
Top five
Stadium
Nissan Stadium (72,000)


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