Sunday, 21 July 2019

 


The story of SC Sagamihara is one of those improbable tales that seem to be so common in the history of the J.League -- a team that has no logical reason to have taken root where it did, and when it did, but which has consistently defied the odds against it ,and climbed into the professional ranks just six years after it was created. To understand just how improbable the story is, one only needs to pull out a map and look at the location -- Sagamihara is located in northwestern Kanagawa prefecture near the borders with Tokyo, Yamanashi and Shizuoka. Although it is a very populous small city with easy access to Tokyo and Yokohama, there is very little to distinguish it apart from some sprawling military bases (both US and Japanese) and a large population of foreigners -- mainly Americans who are either current or former military personnel. Sagamihara does have a very nice, 15,000-seat stadium (Sagami Gion Stadium) but until around 2008 it was mainly used for the American "gridiron" style of football, or for rugby.  In fact, it is the home stadium of one of the TopLeague's founding members, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries "DynaBoars."

The location is even more unlikely when you consider that Kanagawa, despite its relatively small geographical size, is already home to four J.League teams -- more than any other prefecture in the country. Though the Yokohama Marinos, Yokohama FC and Kawasaki Frontale are all on the opposite side of the prefecture, Shonan Bellmare is just a short hop south of Sagamihara, while both FC Tokyo and Machida Zelvia play their home games just a short distance to the north, across the Tokyo border.

However, fate has a way of acting in mysterious ways. A local boy who rose to fame for the Japan national team, Shigeyoshi Mochizuki, returned home in 2007 after a long pro career with teams including Nagoya Grampus, JEF United and Vissel Kobe. Mochizuki ran into some old friends who were playing amateur football in the Kanagawa League with one small team or another, and was asked if he would play for one of the teams in Yokohama or Odawara (another nearby Kanagawa city). He responded by suggesting that -- instead of commuting elsewhere -- they should set up their own team in Sagamihara and play at Gion Stadium. 

With Mochizuki as player-coach, and a relatively raw, inexperienced group of amateurs from the local area, SC Sagamihara was launched in 2008. Not only did the team have a very successful year in the Kanagawa League, but in the 2008 "Nationwide Club Team Championship" -- a tournament that brings together the champions of all Prefectural Leagues in the country -- they shocked even themselves by winning the trophy! Such an auspicious start was bound to attract interest from locals. After all, Sagamihara is one of those easily forgettable little cities which is forever overshadowed by their much larger neighbours, and almost never recognised on its own merits. Think Yonkers New York, Santa Clara California, Chelmsford England or Wollongong Australia. When a local team wins the NATIONAL championship (even if it was at the sixth-level of domestic football), this is sure to excite interest and pride among the residents. Virtually overnight, SC Sagamihara had become a local icon.  

Fortunately for the team and fans alike, Mochizuki turned out to be a very savvy organizer with a keen head for business and a clear awareness of how to latch hold of the momentum of a fad, and use it to build a more permanent foundation. Using his contacts throughout the J.League, Mochizuki began slowly building up the team's roster with veteran J.Leaguers hoping for one last hurrah, or high school/university graduates who were not quite good enough to get an offer from the J.League, but wanted to continue playing for a few more years. In 2010, he also prevailed upon Tetsumasa Kimura -- a former JEF United teammate who had not only played for a decade in the J.League as a journeyman defender, but also had spent several years in New Zealand, playing for East Auckland -- to take over the coaching duties, allowing Mochizuki to take the job of GM, and concentrate on the business side of things.

SC Sagamihara's advance up the amateur ladder was rapid. In fact, 2014 -- their first season in the J3 -- was the first year in the team's history that they did NOT earn promotion. This was partly a reflection of the relatively weak condition of regional clubs, but Sagamihara also showed their penchant for getting their best results in the most important matches, by winning the Nationwide Regional League Championships in 2012, and vaulting into the JFL. Once again, the timing could not have been better. Just three months later the J.League announced its plans to create the J3. Never one to let an opportunity go by unanswered,  Mochizuki set to work lining up sponsors, arm-twisting veteran players and sweet-talking coaches. Though the team held up their end by producing solid results on the pitch, it was mainly Mochizuki's business savvy and connections that allowed Sagamihara to meet all the requirements for entry as a founding member of the J3.

The personal links that Mochizuki developed over his two-decade career in the J.League were never more apparent than after SC Sagamihara earned their spot in the J.League. He persuaded former national team striker Naohiro Takahara and goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to join the team, along with a daunting list of other veterans. Kawaquchi's contributions on the pitch were only surpassed by his efforts to promote the club as its official PR pinup. In fact, fans even adopted him as their semi-official mascot, blazoning cartoon Kawaguchis on all sorts of merchandise, as well as the cover of all publicity materials.

Of course, Sagamihara's unlikely location, especially relative to more established J.League teams, is bound to become a hurdle to success at some point. Fan figures are impressive for a J3 club, but it is not going to be easy to compete with the likes of Bellmare, Marinos and Frontale for popularity. The team may also find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet when players like Kawaguchi (who is reportedly playing for "almost nothing") finally retire. Nevertheless, Mr. Mochizuki has shown that he has a Midas touch when it comes to leveraging opportunities. Now that SC Sagamihara is in the professional ranks, he will surely aim to take the club as high and as far as possible. Who knows? Perhaps the latecomers may even manage to give Yokohama and Kawasaki another local rival, somewhere down the road. 

Team Results: 2008-2013

Year Rank Pts GP W D L GF GA G.Dif
2008(Kanagawa Div3) 1 21 7 7 0 0 45 2 +43
2009(Kanagawa Div2) 1 33 11 11 0 0 83 4 +79
2010 (Kanagawa Div1) 1 29 11 9 2 0 45 9 +36
2011 (Kanto Div2) 1 31 14 10 1 3 40 12 +28
2012 (Kanto Div1) 1 47 18 15 2 1 42 13 +29
2013 (JFL) 3 61 34 18 7 9 58 42 +16

Team Results: 2014-present

Year Rank Pts GP W D L GF GA G.Dif
2014 (J3) 6 43 33 12 7 14 44 48 -4
2015  4 58 36 17 7 12 59 51 +8
2016 11 35 30 9 8 13 29 46 -17