Today marked the third anniversary of the most pivotal game in Omiya Ardija's J1 history.
Not for the end result. After ninety minutes of gutsy hustle and hanging on for dear life, the Squirrels finally succumbed in extra time to a highly motivated juggernaut in the form of the Urawa Reds. No, the pivotal moment of the pivotal game came later, when the Omiya brains trust (led by the Dark Prince of Personnel, now Ventforet Kofu GM Satoru Sakuma) saw a gritty but overstretched squad get to the semi-finals of Japan's premier football competition and decided to strengthen by spending two years' worth of reinforcement budget on seven players with long resumes.
The results varied from star (Daigo Kobayashi) to starters (Yoshiyuki Kobayashi, Yukio Tsuchiya, Yasuhiro Hato) to contributor (Naoya Saeki) to disappointment (Kota Yoshihara) to unmitigated disaster (Saul "Speedy" Martinez). Three years, four head coaches and one terribly frustrating 2007 season of no reinforcements (which saw the team a breath away from J1 mortality) later, and Omiya finds itself at a crossroads again. Was it the best idea to overspend? Maybe not, but as we speak Omiya prepares itself for year five of life in the big leagues. Not bad for a team on a budget.
Now after a (relatively) successful season in a beautiful new stadium all their own, the team is a buyer in a player-heavy market with big guns like Urawa sitting out because of the awful economy. One of the Ardija targets appeared today in his familiar #22 Yokohama F Marinos uniform against Gamba Osaka, the new Asian champions. The two teams were playing not only for a place in the Emperor's Cup final - as the Squirrels and the Reds were three years ago - but also for the last Japanese slot in the 2009 ACL.
Yuji Nakazawa played 120 minutes for a team he has been the face and heart of for seven years. For most of the game he dominated, disrupting the offense and shutting down Gamba's dangerous Brazilian striker Lucas with quick decisions and physical play. Unfortunately, deep into extra time his tired legs betrayed him. Nakazawa was unable to cut off a pass to a streaking Masato Yamazaki, who put the only goal of the game in the net. The loss not only ended Yokohama's chance at a trophy for 2008, it took away a big selling point in their negotiations with Nakazawa. There will be no ACL for the Tricolore.
Now Nakazawa has to choose between a team with huge resources from its internet sponsor who is willing to open up the purse and overspend on players, but who has at the same time offered no clear indication of what kind of team it will field in 2009 (Vissel Kobe); or a team where he is legendary, where he is familiar with everyone and everything, and which cemented him as a fixture in Japan's National squad (Marinos). Or alternatively, Nakazawa could opt to join his "hometown" team.
He could come to a team and play for a coach - incoming Ardija boss Jang Wae-Ryong - that helped turn him into the player he is, when the two of them were at Verdy Kawasaki. He can come to a squad serious about spending money to become a champion, but one that is lacking in talent in many key spots and one that seems to be in constant flux. It's a tough choice and a risk for not only the player but the team as well. Nakazawa is pushing past thirty, he's approaching 300 games as a J-League player and has a good number of World Cup and Asia Cup qualifiers staring him directly in the eye. The possibility of a breakdown or a drop in skill is real.
However, the guy is a winner. More importantly, Nakazawa can singlehandedly take over a game with his skill and decision-making. He's a difference-maker in a league that has relatively few. Even fewer are available. He's also a guy that gets the benefit of the official's whistle, which Omiya hasn't had on a consistent basis. So, on January 10th we will see what decision Yuji Nakazawa makes on his future. If he decides to come to Omiya and plays like everyone knows he is capable of, maybe we'll look at the result of tonight's semi-final and realise who the real winner was.