This weekend the 2014 K League Classic and K League Challenge will kick off. So, let’s run through some basic information on the two leagues and the teams.
K League Classic
This year there are only 12 teams in the league. They are (based on last year’s table):
Ulsan Hyundai Tigers
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Suwon Samsung Bluewings
Seongnam FC (re-branded from Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma)
Jeonnam Dragons (re-branded from Chunnam Dragons)
Sangju Sangmu (promoted)
The season will once again be in the split-season format, with one small change to the timing. With 12 teams in the league, the K League administrators still wanted to maintain a 38 game season. So, the first “half” season will be 33 games long with each team playing each other three times. At that point, the league will split into top 6 and bottom 6, and each team will play each other one time (five games).
Relegation will also be slightly changed. The last place team will be relegated to the K League Challenge. The 11th place team will be forced to face a promotion-relegation playoff with a team from the K League Challenge.
Speaking of which, there are 10 teams in this year’s edition of the K League Challenge. They are (based on last year’s results):
Gangwon FC (relegated)
Daegu FC (relegated)
Daejeon Citizens (relegated)
Korea Police FC
Goyang Hi FC
Bucheon FC 1995
Each team will play each other four times for a total of 36 games. The top team will earn automatic promotion to the K League Classic. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place teams will be involved in a promotion playoff with the aforementioned K League Classic team.
A Team-by-Team guide to the K League Classic (in predicted finish order last-first)
Sangju Sangmu – 12th (automatic relegation)
If you have not yet read Roy’s piece about Korea’s compulsory military service go here now. If you have, read on. The army team is back in the top flight after spending a year down in the Challenge. The team is led by a trio of Lee’s, Lee Keun-Ho, Lee Sang-Hyub, and Lee Ho. Unfortunately for Sangju Sangmu, Lee Sang-Hyub will complete his military service right after the season starts and the other two will finish in late September. It will likely be a rocky year for Sangju who will be fortunate to stay up.
Gyeongnam FC – 11th (playoff)
After a few solid seasons under the guidance of former national team boss Cho Kwang-Rae, Gyeongnam has steadily dropped down into the lower reaches of the K League. Managerial changes and a lack of an established core have hurt the Changwon-based side. Gyeongnam made some decent moves in the offseason, but I would expect them to be fighting to avoid relegation this year.
Jeonnam Dragons – 10th
2013 was disappointing for Jeonnam (Chunnam) fans. The team narrowly avoided the two automatic relegation spots by 8 points, and the playoff spot by just 4. The team’s biggest concern was scoring as they chalked up a measly 34 goals all season (less than a goal a game). The team managed to survive behind a stingy defense that conceded 45 goals all season. Jeonnam will be hoping a couple foreign imports, former Suwon striker Stevica Ristic and the Croatian Sandi Krizman, can boost their goal tally this year.
Seongnam FC – 9th
What’s in store for the newly re-branded Seongnam team? Probably some ups, some downs, and plenty of confusion. The ride hasn’t been completely smooth for new owners Seongnam City as even things like the team’s name isn’t completely clear (FC Seongnam or Seongnam FC). Old signs are still up at the Tancheon Sports Complex, and the club’s new kit hasn’t been released yet (although the keeper kit was). Seongnam went retro and brought back legendary manager Park Jong-Hwan after a six-year “break” from football. The team has some good players, but the off field changes may be a bit too much.
Incheon United – 8th
Incheon surprised many last season and got off to a blistering start before eventually fading towards the end. The team, once again, suffered an offseason raid from Jeonbuk and lost a couple key players. The question once again will be, can Incheon rebuild and remain competitive for another season? I suspect that the constant re-jigging of players may catch up to them this season.
Jeju United – 7th
Jeju is a difficult team to predict. They are backed by chaebol money, but rarely do they appear as a ‘big club’. Pedro Junior scored 17 for the island team last year, but the Brazilian headed for Japan during the offseason. Manager Park Gyeong-Hoon usually has the team competitive at least, and I would expect Jeju to do so again this season.
Busan IPark – 6th
Things were looking quite promising for Busan, until Guangzhou R&F made them an offer they couldn’t refuse for midfielder Park Jong-Woo. Suddenly Busan needed to reinforce the midfield and made a couple last minute purchases. The team should be strong at the back once again, but questions remain in attack.
Suwon Samsung – 5th
A dismal 2013 may be followed by a dismal 2014. Hardly something the club would want given their notoriously demanding fans. Reports of budget cuts in the offseason were not welcome news, but they may be the new reality for the club. The club will be hoping that North Korean international Jong Tae-Se builds on a decent first season, and combines well with Brazilian attack partners Roger and Santos Junior.
FC Seoul – 4th
Seoul will be an interesting team to watch. The club lost captain Ha Dae-Sung and top striker Dejan Damjanovic in the offseason to Chinese money. Younger players like Yoon Il-Rok will need to step up and help fill the void, and if the first ACL game was any indication, Seoul may be just fine. Coach Choi Yong-Soo remains one of the best in the league, and Seoul will expect to push for honors again.
Pohang Steelers – 3rd (ACL Spot)
Will last season’s champions suffer second-year syndrome or will they push hard to defend their title? My money’s on the former, and Pohang once again did not reinforce their squad during the offseason which potentially runs the risk of a thin squad getting run ragged. The World Cup break will help a bit (I don’t expect any Pohang players to make the cut), but in the end I think deeper squads will prevail.
Ulsan Hyundai – 2nd (ACL Spot)
Back to back last minute losses ended Ulsan’s 2013 campaign on a sour note. Manager Kim Ho-Gon resigned, and Ulsan appointed the inexperienced (at the top flight level) Cho Min-Kook. How well Cho adjusts to the demands of competing on three fronts will likely dictate how well Ulsan does. The squad is talented, one of the best in the league, and will surely be hungry to make amends for last year.
Jeonbuk Motors – 1st (Champions, ACL Spot)
Jeonbuk had a solid 2013, but ultimately missed out on everything. Choi Kang-Hee will be there for a full season which will surely help a team that struggled a bit in his absence. The team replaced army-bound winger Seo Sang-Min with Incheon’s Han Kyo-Won and China-bound striker Kevin Oris with a couple Brazilians. The impressively named Marcos Aurelio and Kaio. If the two can combine to get a similar goal tally to Oris’ 14 last year, and Lee Dong-Gook can stay relatively healthy, the title should be there for Jeonbuk to re-claim.
Unfortunately for overseas fans, I don’t believe One World Sports is broadcasting any K League matches this season. A reliable stream is probably your only hope for catching domestic games.