2024 J.League season preview: Urawa Reds on the hunt for more trophies

2024 J.League season preview: Urawa Reds on the hunt for more trophies

Urawa Reds have won every trophy on offer and their three AFC Champions League titles are the second-most of any club on the continent. Needless to say, they dream big in Saitama and 2024 will be no different, but let's start with last season ...

2023 review

Urawa began the year with all focus on the AFC Champions League and it paid off. They won the continental crown once more to become the kings of Asia.

Upon returning to league play, they continued to churn out results and spent most of the season among the top four. The campaign did not end on a high, though, as they went out of the group stage of the AFC Champions League, couldn’t quite make their way into the title race, and then slipped from third to fourth place in the final weeks of the season to miss out on Asian qualification altogether.

Key loss

Takahiro Akimoto - Few players in J1 are as versatile as Akimoto. His ability to play fullback on both sides and even push forward, doing it all at a high level, was so valuable to Urawa from the minute he joined the club in 2021.

Now, Akimoto is at OH Leuven in Belgium and the Reds have an ever-moving hole to fill. While Akimoto primarily featured at left back in Saitama, and Urawa will have to sort out the left side of defense now, they’ll also have to figure out what to do in a pinch at right back or in the midfield, where they called on Akimoto to solve their problems as well.

Urawa had J1's best defense last season, conceding just 27 goals in 34 matches, and Akimoto's positional nous was a big help in snuffing out talent before it could arise.

Elsewhere, on the attacking end, losing José Kanté to retirement is also a massive loss, as the striker came up huge time and time again for Urawa in both the league and cup competitions in 2023.

Key addition

Samuel Gustafson - The most important thing for the Reds is to not lose what made them special last season: Their ability to limit chance quality.

Some of this is the responsibility of the backline, of course, but the midfield also has its role to play and that's where the Swedish national teamer comes in.

Gustafson can provide valuable cover for the back line as a CDM and he’ll give the rest of the midfield freedom to get forward, including Best Eleven star Atsuki Ito, who led the Reds with five assists and 95 tackles in 2023.

If the pair can gel, and new manager Per-Mathias Høgmo's style successfully takes root, they can not only help to preserve Urawa’s marvelous defense but also give the attack a needed jolt after finishing more than 20 goals off the top offenses in the league last year.

Goal for 2024


Urawa have built their success as much on cup glory as they have league success. Not only do their three Asian crowns make them by far Japan’s most successful club on the continent, but their eight Emperor’s Cup titles are also a record and they have four J.League YBC Levain Cup wins too.

The expectation in Saitama for new manager Høgmo is to win trophies and that starts in 2024. With no continental play on offer, making a run in the two domestic cups will be a priority.

That doesn’t mean that the league is an afterthought, though. Far from it. Urawa spent much of last season on the periphery of the title fight and with just a little more goal scoring could find themselves in the thick of the battle at the top this season. Plus, the easiest way for them to get back into the AFC Champions League Elite is with a top-two finish so they know exactly what the goal is for this year.

This is a team with a defined core and tons of talent that should remain formidable at the back, led by rock-solid captain Hiroki Sakai and vice captain Alexander Scholz (who also takes penalties and added 7 of their 42 goals last season).

There will be questions in the attack after a sometimes-sputtering unit lost their most dangerous striker in Kanté, but the hope is that they can make up the production by committee - a committee that will include the likes of Norwegian international Ola Solbakken, new #10 Shoya Nakajima, last year's Goal of the Season winner Ryoma Watanabe, and of course Thiago Santana who was J1's Top Scorer in 2022.

If the Reds can keep it tight at the back and start flying forward with greater productivity, watch out because they may just be contenders on multiple fronts this season.