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[ODDS and EVENS] FC Machida Zelvia Excelling in Debut Season in the J.League's Top Flight

Riding a three-match winning streak, FC Machida Zelvia, guided by former ultra-successful high school coach Go Kuroda, have ascended to first place in J1.

In the first four weeks of the 2024 J.League season, there was no bigger story than FC Machida Zelvia

After winning the J.League second-division title, aka J2, in October 2023, the Tokyo Prefecture-based squad earned a spot in the top flight for the first time in franchise history. 

What third-year manager Go Kuroda's club accomplished in its first four matches was a big, bold declaration that it has every intention of being the opposite of a pushover in every match this season.

By beating Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 2-1 on March 16, with forward Shota Fujio and defender Ibrahim Dresevic notching goals in the second half at Sapporo Dome, Zelvia climbed into first place in J1. In doing so, Zelvia became the first side in the 20-team circuit with three victories this season.

Who's right below them in the standings? Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Cerezo Osaka, both of whom have two wins and two ties, with eight points apiece.

FC Machida Zelvia
Zelvia fans root for the team during a J.League away match against Nagoya Grampus at Toyota Stadium on March 2. (KYODO)

A Super Start for FC Machida Zelvia 

Zelvia, who debuted in the fourth tier of this nation's soccer hierarchy in the Japan Football League in 2009, previously earned wins over Nagoya Grampus (1-0 on March 2) and the Kashima Antlers (1-0 on March 9. Kuroda's squad opened the campaign with a 1-1 draw against Gamba Osaka on February 24 at Machida GION Stadium.

"We are still newcomers, and we should not feel that we can do this," Kuroda was quoted as saying by Sports Hochi after the team's triumph over Consadole, referring to instant success in J1.

Each season is a new entity in and of itself, but franchises with a track record of success and well-established leadership in upper management provide important measuring sticks for newly promoted clubs each year. 

What's more, in the first 31 seasons of the J.League's existence through 2023, the Antlers (eight titles), Gamba (two) and Grampus (one) have been among its premier franchises.

So, in my view, you can't dismiss Zelvia's draw with Gamba and consecutive victories over Nagoya and Kashima as merely luck. 

FC Machida Zelvia
Zelvia manager Go Kuroda celebrates a goal on March 16. (KYODO)

Coaching Rarity: From High School to the Pros

Moreover, there are clearly visible footprints in the metaphorical sand showing Zelvia's path to success.

It began with the hiring of former Aomori Yamada High School head coach Kuroda to replace Serbian mentor Ranko Popovic after Zelvia finished in 15th place out of 22 teams in J2 in 2022.

Kuroda was a prolific winner at Aomori Yamada (1995-2022), guiding his team to 26 straight trips to the All Japan High School Soccer Tournament. That remarkable run included three national titles in a five-year span, with Aomori Yamada reaching the top for the final time under Kuroda in his last season at the school.

Then, he decided, it was time for a new challenge. 

And Kuroda proved to be the right man at the right time for FC Machida Zelvia.

The proof was in the results. Zelvia opened the season with six victories and a draw over the first seven weeks of the 2023 campaign. Fueled by their brilliant start and overall excellence, they sealed the J2 title with three rounds of matches to play in October 2023. 

Kuroda's club chalked up 87 points (26 wins, nine draws) in the 42-match campaign, finishing 12 points ahead of runner-up Jubilo Iwata.

The J2 winner's trophy provided a new foundation for the team, but there were bigger objectives for 2024.

FC Machida Zelvia
FC Machida Zelvia's Shota Fujio makes a cross in the second half against the Kashima Antlers on March 9 at Machida GION Stadium. (©SANKEI)

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Productivity in the New Season

In Zelvia's dynamic start in J1, Fujio (two goals) Yu Hirakawa, Junya Suzuki and Dresevic (one apiece) have lifted the offense. Koreans Se Hun Oh and Min Gyu Jang are among four players tied for the team lead in assists (one) at this early stage of the season. Fujio and Suzuki are the others.

Backed by a capable defense, Zelvia goalkeeper Kosei Tani allowed only two goals in the first four contests.

Although FC Machida Zelvia may be the unlikely first-place team at this stage of the season, they are a feel-good story.

Casual fans may view the J1 debutants as underdogs, but Kuroda's bold leadership has transformed this squad.

He hammered home that point in February on the eve of the squad's season opener.

"I have no intention of fighting for [J1] survival whatsoever," Kuroda was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. "We'll aim for the top end of the table and with any luck, go for the title. I'll be pushing my players."

That approach has worked so far.

FC Machida Zelvia
FC Machida Zelvia players congratulate each other after a 2-1 victory over Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo on March 16 at Sapporo Dome. (KYODO)

Focus and Ambition

Tani and his teammates have 35 matches remaining, starting with a March 30 encounter with visiting Sagan Tosu.

So there'll be countless opportunities for Kuroda to remind the players how he wants them to compete.

Nothing will be assumed.

He'll tell them what he wants.

"If I don't speak out on things that make me uncomfortable, I am not qualified to be a leader," Kuroda said before the season opener, according to Kyodo News. "I can't stand not getting my message across." 

There's another intriguing element of Kuroda's personal story that blends in with the story of FC Machida Zelvia. In short, it revolves around this: Don't underestimate the leadership ability of someone who only previously worked in the scholastic ranks.

"Going forward, I think someone else will take on this type of challenge, thinking 'I can do it, too,' " Kuroda told Kyodo News, referring to an amateur coach aiming to make the big leap to the professional ranks. 

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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