I woke early on Saturday to make the drive to Hiratsuka. The train schedules showed a nearly four hour journey so I set out thinking I needed the time... I don't drive particularly slowly and arrived in less than half the time the train would have taken. This meant that I'd have no problem taking one of the very few parking spaces available, which is apparently only one of the many hassles facing away supporters going to a Shonan Bellmare match.
There is absolutely nothing to do other than walk in the park or go to the petting zoo, even within a 20 minute drive away. So I just waited under a tree in the rain near the away supporters' entrance. The security hired by Shonan is far more intrusive than others I have seen, and were even hassling when a supporter tried to put his bag within the 20 seat wide roped-off "security area" for a moment. Worst of all is the stadium itself which offers a terrible view from the field (when I thought Kasamatsu had to be worst in that department) and most unforgiving, poor acoustics. Even if the stadium were quiet, the little touches of hearing the feet striking the ball and player chatter is impossible. The only way to know if the other supporters are cheering is to watch their movements. And because sound doesn't carry, the speakers are set very annoyingly loud to compensate. Combined with the weather it was miserable, but I'd recommend pretty much any away supporter wanting to enjoy a match against Shonan, even in perfect weather, to just watch it on TV. The only positive thing is that going by car is very easy due to lack of driving fans... I could also see the hell that most people had to go through to cram on the bus back to the station though. It looked like a long wait for a lot of people.
With that out of the way, I can say the game was remarkably played on both sides, maybe with a slight edge of possession and lack of mistake to Mito, and certainly a huge amount of turnovers on Shonan's part as Mito continuously took the ball away. However, while Shonan made many mistakes in midfield regarding possession, Mito made its mistakes in offense and Shonan played the entire match relentlessly to prevent a single Mito goal. The result had no chance to be anything but low-scoring.
In many ways, the first half seemed like two people playing foosball while only controlling the goalkeeper pegs. The ball bounced around in the middle until occasionally weakly heading toward a very capable keeper. Mito was playing better soccer, but Shonan was playing the kind of game they wanted to play in this vital contest for their promotion. The second half continued as the first, but started to get more interesting after about ten minutes. Mito's biggest chance came at about 13 in, with forward Arata's shot bouncing off the Shonan keeper and rolling toward forward Nishino literally a body length in front of the goal. Racing against a Shonan defender his shot was at a heartbreakingly impossible angle, flying above the goal. Only a minute later J. League veteran striker Tuto would score one for Shonan. Even with 30 minutes left, Shonan would focus its efforts on defense and possession, even pulling forwards back almost a quarter of a field length. With this strategy they would hold on for a slim win and vital points in their efforts to return to the top flight after 8 years.
The fight for J1 promotion became a lot clearer with the other matches this round. Yamagata will have to lose each game spectacularly not to at least make the playoff spot, and two of three wins would assure them of direct promotion no matter how the teams below perform. With the following two matches against Kumamoto and Tokushima, it would be hard to bet on anything but the first direct promotion for Yamagata, but I hope for some stumbling as I will go to their final home match of the year as Mito plays them in December. It would be nice to have some drama involved in the decision, and in some ways it will be nice to see them get their feet wet in the top division, where they will surely be destroyed against the J1 powers in Yokohama FC/Sapporo-esque style. Shonan's win probably causes concern for Sendai fans who took a bittersweet point against nearly unbeatable Hiroshima. While Tosu and Osaka have a shot, it seems very likely that this year's promotion teams will be Hiroshima and Yamagata, with either Sendai or Shonan taking the 3rd spot.
If only J1's battle against relegation could be predictable for any team aside from doomed Sapporo.
In JFL results, Tochigi finally got a win over the bottom team of the league to jump back into second place. Honda FC officially won the JFL season which means that the four teams approved for J2 promotion are fighting for three slots. And wouldn't you know it but with three games left they occupy places 2 through 5 with only 4 points difference between them. While Yokogawa and RKU could prove spoilers for those spots, there will undoubtedly be one new J2 promoted team next year and more likely than not three promoted teams. For those concerned about the J2 landscape next year the unofficial JFL news page includes a final standing predictor with its standings list here.