SINGAPORE - Defending Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions Albirex Niigata have turned to the J-League in their bid to retain the title and inject more quality.
Traditionally, the Japanese side revamp their squad annually with a host of new Under-23 players, but in previous years, they have mostly tapped on Japanese universities.
This season, six of their 13 new signings have come through the J-League system, either through various club academies or having played in the lower divisions.
The pick of the bunch could be winger Kuraba Kondo, who played 11 games and scored once in the J3 League with Cerezo Osaka Under-23s in the last two seasons.
Still only 18, Kondo is also a Japan youth international who scored in the 11-0 win over Singapore in the AFC U-16 Championship qualifiers in 2017.
Kondo was candid to admit he did not get any offers from the J-League and did not know much about Albirex, SPL champions four times in the last five campaigns, until they approached him.
He added: "In the J-League, the players are physically strong, powerful and speedy, and my game play is build on that.
"I'm comfortable in possession and I aim to show how well I can link up play for my new team. I can show my attacking playing towards the goal while I'm passing with teammate. Our football is quite close with my ideal football when the team is holding the ball."
Another new face to look out for is striker Kiyoshiro Tsuboi, who signed on loan from J2 League team Tokushima Vortis.
Such was the 21-year-old's desire to play overseas that he started taking English lessons last year. He was thrilled when the White Swans made their offer.
He said: "When I was a high school player, I could score goals without thinking. But to score at a higher level requires more intelligence and analysing of match situations and opponents' strengths and weaknesses.
"My aim is to show I can do all this for Albirex and score more than 10 goals this season."
Despite bringing in more players with J-League experience, coach Keiji Shigetomi was keen to stress many of them are still young and need time to develop.
Fitness has been a hallmark for the Jurong-based side, and Albirex have held double sessions almost daily in a bid to ramp up their players' levels to last three rounds of matches this season.
Shigetomi said: "Our pre-season was delayed due to entry permit issues and the necessary quarantine, but players are motivated and training with good intensity to achieve my desired physical conditions.
"Our aim is to retain our title with our young players, but we will focus on only the next match, which is against Hougang United (on Saturday), who are one of the most aggressive teams.
"People also talk about Lion City Sailors and I agree they are a team with special local and foreign players, but there are many factors and ways to win games.
"We have to be fitter and run more than the other clubs, and the players have responded with humility. We do not get ahead of ourselves, nor do we think any one team are our main rivals, because as everyone can see, there were no easy games last season."