I am ditching the K League Storylines graphic I cooked up last time around. However, I welcome any and all graphics help if you would like to submit a better graphic!
For this edition, I want to take a look at the recent conclusion of the AFC Champions League Group Stage, update you on how the KFA Cup is progressing, let you know who the promotion/relegation candidates are, and then highlight the K League match of the week. Let’s get started!
The AFC Champions League
Unfortunately, only 2 of the 4 Korean clubs that entered the AFC Champions League group stages made it to the Round of 16. It was heartbreak on Wednesday for Daegu FC and Gyeongnam FC as both finished third in their group and were eliminated. That being said, as both clubs were debuting in the competition they should be proud of how well they performed.
For Daegu FC, they can hold their heads high after thoroughly dominating Melbourne Victory home and away and treating their rapturous fans at DGB Daegu Bank Park to a 3-1 home victory over Guangzhou Evergrande. Those 3 victories were not enough as back to back losses to group winners Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Matchdays 3 and 4 meant they would need to avoid a loss to Guangzhou Evergrande on the final matchday to advance. Unfortunately, they fell 1-0 in China and will have to focus on qualifying for next year’s competition to see if they can better their maiden campaign. The good news? They currently occupy 4th place in the K League 1, 2 points off qualification for the Champions League places.
Gyeongnam FC enjoyed a more uneven campaign than Daegu and could struggle to find their way back into the Champions League on their current form (though they are still alive in the KFA Cup). They dropped points too often, gave up a lead to lose against the defending champions Kashima Antlers, and needed a win and help on the final matchday. They won 2-0, but the help didn’t come and Shandong Luneng pipped them to 2nd place.
Ulsan Hyundai and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors fared much better and both topped their groups, thus avoiding each other until the quarterfinals! For Ulsan, coming up with close wins over Shanghai SIPG and Kawasaki Frontale on the second and third matchday was enough to see them top a very evenly contested group. They could even afford to rest their starters on Tuesday to give younger players valuable experience in Shanghai. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were good against the bigger leagues, winning both matches against Urawa Reds and Beijing Guoan, but strangely struggled against up and coming Thai side Buriram United. Their Round of 16 opponent, Shanghai SIPG, should be in the video room dissecting what exactly Buriram did tactically to stifle Jeonbuk.
The KFA Cup
What is the KFA Cup? It’s like the storied FA Cup in the UK but you actually get a Champions League spot if you win it (look it up, I’m not joking). The KFA Cup is really fun because not only do professional sides take part, so do semi-pro, amateur, and university sides. Much like the FA Cup in the UK, the professional K League clubs join up much later, in the round of 32. And the minnows unleash a special brand of chaos by knocking out a large portion of the pro clubs right away!
We’re down to the quarterfinals, which will take place July 3rd, and 4 K League clubs remain. For those who don’t read Korean, here are the match-ups as well as which league the clubs are from.
Changwon City FC (Korean National League, 3rd tier) vs. Sangju Sangmu (K League 1)
Gyeongnam FC (K League 1) vs. Hwaseong FC (K3 League, 4th tier)
Daejeon Korail FC (National League) vs. Gangwon FC (K League 1)
Gyeongju Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power FC (National League) vs. Suwon Samsung Bluewings FC (K League 1)
One final piece of info on the KFA Cup winner earning an AFC Champions League group stage spot: if it’s a non-K League club, most likely they won’t play in the Champions League. You need to pursue an AFC license to compete in the Champions League and most lower league sides in Korea won’t take that on. It’s unclear if a K League 2 side would even compete in the Champions League. I’m not sure if this is an official K League rule, but it’s possible that if a non-K League side wins the KFA Cup, 4th place in the K League 1 would earn a Champions League spot. I am sure that if the KFA Cup winner has already earned a Champions League spot through the league, the 4th place team is bumped to the Champions League.
The promotion candidates from the K League 2 are looking pretty clear-cut at the moment. Gwangju FC are unbeaten so far and can earn automatic promotion if they keep this up. Their squad has Felipe, the K League 2’s leading scorer thus far, and Um Wonsang (a U20 squad member), among others. Hot on their heels is Busan IPark FC, where Kim Moonhwan plays, who are enjoying a Lee Jeonghyup renaissance at the moment. He’s back from a loan in Japan and scoring goals again. I would certainly enjoy seeing both of these clubs in the K League 1 again, even if it meant saying goodbye to my beloved Incheon United FC.
Speaking of Incheon United FC (sorry, I’m biased and have to mention them every time!), the relegation battle for them will happen again. We sit dead last at 6 points and our new manager, Yoo Sang-chul, was sacked from his last position at Jeonnam Dragons FC because they got relegated last year (yikes). Jeju United only have seven points and we still have a long season ahead, but both Incheon and Jeju need to improve quickly. Gyeongnam, now free from AFC Champions League worries, certainly will hope to do better as well. We’ll check back in a few weeks to see how the table is looking.
K League Match of the Week
Daegu FC vs. Suwon Samsung Bluewings FC, Sunday May 26, 4 AM EST, 4 PM KST.
DGB Daegu Bank Park will be rocking as 4th place meets 6th place. Suwon Samsung look much better recently after a bit of a shaky start and boast some of the best fans in the K League. Daegu has fallen in love with their brand new arena so I’m expecting the atmosphere between both sets of fans will create quite a spectacle. If Daegu are for real and want to make a statement, Suwon Samsung is certainly a good team to beat. On the other hand, Suwon will want to continue their climb up the table. My heart wants a Daegu win but I smell a high-scoring 2-2 draw.
I’ll see you in another few weeks to update you on what’s going on in the K League. In the next few days, expect a lot of Tavern content. I’ll be live-tweeting Saturday morning U20 World Cup action, want to bring back KNT Stock Watch to predict Bento’s June squad, and we’re going to preview the Women’s World Cup very soon!