They say the league table doesn't lie, but as we don't have one yet, and no media outlets in Japan seem willing to put any noses out of joint (yet, at least) by ranking J.League teams (especially J2) or predicting the order in which teams will finish, I've decided to publish this, my inaugural J2 Power Rankings. This method of putting teams in order from first to worst is more popular in American sports, where teams are seperated into divisions and often don't play each other at all during the season, but I think it'll be a useful way of keeping track of other teams Tokyo fans aren't that familiar with.
Rather than simply re-hashing the final standings from last season with the three relegated teams from J1 on top of the other 16 (now 17 with the addition of Tottori), I'm taking into account players that have come in or left in the off-season, and where teams have finished in the past two-to-three seasons. Now, as I admitted in Nine Months of ....., I'm not fully up-to-speed yet on all of the J2 clubs and players, but I've used The J1 & J2 Player Directory to help with ins & outs, and the official J.League site for standings from previous years. I'm planning on updating this every week or two during the season (or once a month at worst), and I'll use a completely unscientific method of evaluating results (a 1-0 win over Chiba will carry more weight for a weaker team than a 3-0 win over Toyama, for example) in moving teams up or down.
As this is the initial list, you can take this as my pre-season prediction for how the teams will finish. So, without further ado, here are my first J2 Power Rankings (league position in 2010 & first two games in brackets):
1 -FC Tokyo (16th in J1; Tosu H, Okayama A)
Call me a homer all you want, but we have to start the season here. The most expensively assembled and experienced J2 squad ever and, along with Chiba, prohibitive favourites for promotion. There don't appear to be too many banana skins on the schedule until Yokohama FC away in Matchday 6, which looms as our first test against a promotion-hopeful.
2 -Chiba (4th; Kitakyushu A, Shonan H)
They've lost quite a lot of talent, including their three leading scorers from '10 (and Yazawa to us), but they've brought in two very experienced centre-mids - Van Gessel and Fujita (who can't have much left in the tank, surely) - to play along with Yuto Sato, and the GIANT 204cm Norwegian Tor Hogne Aarøy, the scorer of 109 goals for Aalesund in Norway the past 10 seasons. They play Shonan, Sapporo, The Spews, Kyoto and us in the first eight games, so we'll have a good early indication if their promotion push will be genuine. I suspect it will be.
3 -Yokohama FC (6th; Toyama H, Oita A)
A bit of a gut call this one, but they improved from 16th to 6th last season, and with a full season from Kaio (6 goals in 17 games after joining from Atlético Paranaense - he also scored 18 in 53 the previous two seasons with Cerezo) and the added midfield steel of Fabinho (who has replaced Roberto), together with proven J2 marksman Yoshihito Fujita and the versatile Keiji Takachi (8 goals each of the last two years), I expect them to kick on further. They weren't the best at the back in '10, but have signed six defenders, three of them with J1 experience.
4 -The Spews (5th; Kumamoto A, Mito H)
They've brought a lot of new faces in, but a lot will depend on how their two young gems, Hiroki Kawano and Yoshiaki Takagi, continue to develop, after Takagi's older brother Toshiyuki was sold to Shimizu. If the pair of them kick-on to the next level then they'll be right in the mix, after finishing 11 points out of the promotion places last season. Elsewhere the squad is very experienced and still features Yoichi Doi in goal.
5 -Shonan (18th in J1; Okayama H, Chiba A)
Might be strange to some of you to see Bellmare above Kyoto, but they've addressed the serious problems they had at both ends of the pitch last season, in particular the defence (they scored one more goal than Kyoto but conceeded 22 more). Their open, passing style didn't work out for them in J1, but Sorimachi is still in the dugout, and back in J2 I suspect (and hope) they'll continue to play in the same vein, and the goals should flow for their re-jigged strikeforce, with new signings Yuki Maki, Fabinho and Lucas (no, not that one) teaming up with Adiel and Koji Sakamoto.
6 -Kyoto (17th in J1; Mito A, Kumamoto H)
Most will be surprised to see them this low, but as I pointed out in Three Down, One Up? history says only one of us, Shonan and these will go straight back up. Dreadful at the back last season, they kept only two clean sheets all year (just one, obviously, before our fateful day...), and they've cleaned house, getting rid of eight defenders and bringing in four, while seven of their 10 new faces are first-year players. They'll win their share of games, Diego and Dutra will get their goals, but I just don't see them having the quality to make it back up, unless some of these youngsters make the grade very quickly.
7 -Tokushima (8th; Tottori H, Toyama A)
I think Vortis are the most likely promotion challengers of the newer clubs, they've finished 9th and 8th the past two seasons, and look primed to take another step forward this season, IF they can tighten up at the back. With that in mind, three of their seven signings are defenders, while they've added Keita Sugimoto from Nagoya to partner the league's joint-second top-scorer from '10, Tomohiro Tsuda. To top all of that off, they also have the league's funkiest/weirdest looking player, defender Yuya Hashiuchi.
8 -Tochigi SC (10th; Kusatsu H, Tosu A)
These are going to be good to watch, they'll be our second visitors to Aji Sta (March 27th) and they could even be darkhorses for promotion after they improved from 17th in their first season to 10th last year. The other joint-second top-scorer from '10, Ricardo Lobo, formed an excellent pairing with Choi Kun Sik, and they've added to their attacking options with Argentinian forward Mariano Tripodi and returning winger Kazuhisa Kawahara, who scored 13 goals in their first season. They're shaping up a little better than two teams who finished above them last season, Kumamoto and Tosu.
9 -Kumamoto (7th; The Spews H, Kyoto A)
Good story, these, they would've finished sixth if they had've won or drawn in the last game of 2010 instead of losing 4-0 away at Sapporo, but I think they've probably plateaued for the time being and will lose ground to Tokushima and Tochigi. Two additions that could pay off are Edmilson from Kobe in central midfield and Shun Nagasawa on loan from Shimizu, but they'll need plenty of goals from Shota Matsuhashi (and Kaka look-alike Fabio) to push on from last year's excellent finish.
10 -Kusatsu (12th; Tochigi A, Ehime H)
Six years in J2, and they still haven't managed a top-half finish, but I think they'll crack it this time around, due mainly to their all-Brazilian attack, with former Fukuoka and Shonan target man Lincoln signing on to link-up with last season's leading scorer Rafinha, and winger Alex. If they can keep it tighter at the back, they might sneak in to the top half.
11 -Sapporo (13th; Ehime A, Kitakyushu H)
Ho, hum, Sapporo. They fell off the cliff, all the way down to 13th, just two seasons after playing in J1. Apart from laughing at The Fat Man, there was absolutely nothing to write home about. They've lost Uesato to us on loan, but have taken the Tokyo route and brought in three new Brazilians, and how quickly Bruno (no, not that one), Andrezinho and Tiago settle and how well they perform will go a long way to pointing to where they'll finish. If they click, they can't be ruled out of the promotion race, but for now I'm giving them just a little bump from last year's finish.
12 -Tosu (9th; FC Tokyo A, Tochigi H)
These are original J2'ers, and the only team of the 10 from 1999 never to have won promotion to the top tier. Last season they slipped from 5th down to 9th, and while they haven't lost much, their new signings hardly inspire confidence, and they'll be heavily reliant on Yohei Toyoda (13 goals in '10) and exciting young Korean Kim Min Woo (4 goals and 8 assists in his first season) again. Other teams have improved and will pass them by.
13 -FC Gifu (14th; Oita H, Tottori A)
For info on Gifu, I went straight to the source, Richy from Forza FC Gifu, and here's what he had to say, firstly on their six new players: "We have bought a bit of experience with Mita from Tokushima and Ri from Sapporo but the rest are just youngsters. Our key defender from last year Yoshimoto got transfered back to you guys, so that leaves a pretty big hole in our pretty average defensive line."
And then, on the team's prospects for 2011: "[Our] new manager Kimura has promised an attacking brand of football, and while this may bring in a few more goals and more spectacular football, the back four are looking pretty dodgy [in the warm-up games] and I expect that they will be letting in a few more goals too!
The team is aiming for a top 6 finish, but I think everyone round here is thinking "you're dreaming mate!" Expect more entertaining football than last year, but a similar finishing position at the bottom half of the table."
Thirteenth sound about right then, Richy?
14 -Ehime FC (11th; Sapporo H, Kusatsu A)
The mikans haven't managed a top-half finish in their five J2 seasons, and while they improved dramatically at the back in 2010 (joint-second-best goals allowed), they scored at a shade under a goal a game, despite the best efforts of ex-Gasmen striker Kenji Fukuda, who scored seven in his first season back in Japan after spells in Paraguay, Mexico, Spain and Greece.
15 -Oita (15th; Gifu A, Yokohama FC H)
What a shambles. A complete and utter shambles. But enough about Shunsuke Maeda. Two years after winning the Nabisco, finishing fourth in J1 and averaging over 20,000 fans a game to the Dome (now named after the prefectural bank after the oil ran out), Trinita plummeted all the way down to 15th in J2. And things aren't getting better any time soon, as they've lost Keigo Higashi to Omiya and Korean international Kim Bo Kyung back to Cerezo, meaning Choi Jung Han will have to do it all on his own up front. Interest for Tokyo fans here in how much Shuto Kono gets on the pitch.
16 -Mito (16th; Kyoto H, The Spews A)
They're in the same boat as Tosu - having spent one year less in J2 - they've never been promoted, and in 2010 plunged all the way down to 16th, a hugely disappointing result following their first ever top half finish in 2009. Replacing Hiroyuki Takasaki's 19 goals, and Tomoyuki Arata's 14 from '09 was always going to be a tall order, and veteran Kota Yoshihara did his best, but too few others pulled their weight, and things are looking grim again for 2011 - of their 11 signings, nine are straight out of university. If Okayama and Toyama improve at all, these will struggle to stay out of the bottom three.
17 -Okayama (17th; Shonan A, FC Tokyo H)
Boy, oh boy, these really pushed the boat out in the off-season, getting shot of 13 players, and bringing in an astounding 25, the knee-jerk reaction to end all knee-jerk reactions following their second season in J2, where only two teams finished below them, only Kitakyushu scored fewer goals, and only two teams conceeded more. The big Bulgarian Ilian Stoyanov is their "big-name" signing, and he'll help at the back, but Hiroki Kishida (or one of their nine other listed strikers) will have to be amongst the goals for them to go anywhere.
18 -Toyama (18th; Yokohama FC A, Tokushima H)
These were an absolute disaster in 2010, letting in 13 more goals than '09 IN 15 LESS GAMES(!). Might have something to do with the 3-3-3-1 they play, you think? Mmmm... But never fear faithful Toyamans, Ryo Hiraide and Seo Yong Duk are here to save the day! Well, all we Tokyo fans can hope for is that Ryo gets to play a lot and doesn't get injured. Daisuke Asahi (15 goals the past two seasons) looks a good player, apart from him and Teruaki Kurobe (and Ryo, of course) it looks very flimsy.
19 -Kitakyushu (19th; Chiba H, Sapporo A)
Shirt-sponsored by a company that makes toilets, and thats wholly appropriate after they stunk up the league in 2010. Some interest for Tokyo fans here (if you've managed to read down this far I commend you!) after they signed 22 year old Kota Morimura, still our player after he spent the past two seasons on loan at Mito. They've got a brutal start to the season looming, and might not spend much time above Tottori...
20 -Tottori(Champions of JFL; Tokushima A, Gifu H)
They start here because they are the league newcomers, but they may not be in the basement for long. Scored a lot of goals in the JFL the past three years, but as we saw with Kitakyushu last year, its a whole different kettle of fish up in J2. I'm looking forward to seeing their Ivory Coast striker Hamed, while they have a lot of J.League-experienced players in their squad, led by Toshihiro Hattori, who went to two World Cups and will anchor their midfield at age 37. All the new boys can really hope to do is better Kitakyushu's record in their first season in J2 last year, and I think they will, as they have a very gentle entry into the league, avoiding the teams in my top seven until Yokohama FC in Matchday 10.
I promise future updates of this won't be as long, but thanks for sticking with me all the way down here. So, have I got it wrong? Fairly right? Bang on? Have I missed a player or players you think will make a difference for one team that could push them up the chart? If you have an answer to any of those questions other than "I don't know," let me know in the comments. Please!