I’ve seen the comments asking for more coverage of the K League, so I’m starting a new column to cover the 2019 K League 1 and 2 season. Welcome to K League Storylines! Throughout the season, we’ll check in on the major storylines and questions surrounding the K League season. Let’s get started with some early season conclusions!
Daegu FC are the Feel-Good Story
Not only have Daegu FC opened DGB Daegu Bank Park to great fanfare (we’ll have more on the stadium soon) and consistently packed crowds, but they have also put together a team that the city can be proud of. They still have Jo Hyeon-woo in the net on great form (for how long is another question), their three-man backline is solid, and their midfield and attack is really gelling. In midfield, Tsubasa Nishi has been a very useful creative addition and he’s combining well with Daegu’s ace Cesinha. In terms of Korean players, Kim Daewon has really stood out in his partnership with Edgar and has earned a call-up to the U23 Olympic team for his effort. With Daegu sitting in 4th in the K League and in good position in the AFC Champions League group stage, the stage is set for Daegu to put together a very successful season.
There will be a Title Race
In seasons past, the Choi Kang-hee Jeonbuk Hyundai squad has been pretty dominant in the K League. They have won the title 4 out of the past 5 seasons and last year romped to the title by 21 points! This season figures to be a bit more competitive. Choi Kang-hee took a job in the Chinese Super League and his replacement, Jose Morais, will need a bit of time to adjust to the job. Thus far, they’re dead even on points with Ulsan Hyundai and it’s looking like Morais has worked out his best XI after a few early season hiccups. In the offseason, Jeonbuk made some smart additions in picking up Moon Seon-min, Lee Keunho (from Pohang Steelers), Han Seung-gyu (the 2018 K League Rookie of the Year), veteran GK Lee Bum-young, as well as Australian Bernie Ibini-Isei.
Who will be their main challengers? It’s looking like FC Seoul are back after an incredibly rough 2018 season that saw them forced to play the relegation playoff for their spot in the K League 1. In the offseason, FC Seoul strengthened by adding Asian Games standout Ikromjon Alibaev. Alibaev has taken up the creative midfield role and is already winning plaudits for his attacking flair. Aleksander Pesic looks like he’s going to find the goals needed and the squad’s Spanish defensive stalwart Osmar is back from a loan to the J League.
Ulsan Hyundai also had arguably the best offseason by adding to their squad across all positions. To replace outgoing defender Richard Windbichler, they added World Cup centerback Yun Young-sun and Dave Bulthuis. In the midfield, FC Seoul’s reliable Shin Jin-ho joined up and former KNT attacker Kim Bo-kyung arrived on loan from Kashiwa Reysol. Finally, they added depth to their forward line by acquiring Joo Min-kyu from Seoul E-Land as a back-up to striker Junior Negrao. Ulsan Hyundai are off to a strong start in the K League and Champions League and their depth will help them throughout the season.
With three very strong sides near the top of the table, this should be a very competitive title race and none of these teams can take anything for granted.
Now let’s ask some questions about the K League season so far.
Will another Chaebol side be relegated?
For those who don’t know, there are two types of clubs in the K League: clubs owned by a large Korean corporation, or a chaebol, and clubs owned by their city/provincial government, commonly called “citizen clubs”. Last season, Jeonnam Dragons, owned by chaebol POSCO, were relegated to the K League 2. This season, Jeju United, owned by the SK Energy subsidiary of the chaebol SK Group, are winless after eight matches. I actually thought Jeju United would do well since they kept their strike partnership of Magno and Tiago intact while adding the 2018 Incheon United standout Elias Aguilar to their midfield. However, it seems like K League sides have manager Jo Sung-hwan’s tactics figured out and the goals have dried up for Magno and Tiago. It will be interesting to see if Jo Sung-hwan is sacked in the coming weeks should the results continue to suffer. Pohang Steelers, another chaebol side owned by POSCO, just sacked their manager Choi Soon-ho and won their first match with their new caretaker manager this morning over Suwon Samsung. I’m sure you can guess who owns the Suwon Bluewings. All three of those chaebol sides are in the bottom half of the table and will need to find form to avoid being sucked into the relegation battle.
Will Incheon United ever get relegated?
No. Full Disclosure: I’m an Incheon United fan. One of the points of pride for the citizen club Incheon United is that we have never been relegated. Nearly every year we are in the relegation battle, but every time we find form at the end of the season to escape the drop. In the offseason, Moon Seon-min and Elias Aguilar, our strongest attackers from 2018, left the club. To replace them, manager Jorn Andersen (who was just sacked) brought in Jiloan Hamad, a Swedish Allvenskan veteran, and Vietnam’s Nguyen Cong Phuong. Other than a strong early season win over Gyeongnam FC, Incheon United has been really poor. Will this be the year I finally have to watch my team get relegated or will a new manager come in and right the ship?
Who are the future KNT players in the K League right now?
I’ll try to pinpoint some promising players who I think could one day make the step up to the senior national team. Let’s start at Daegu FC with Kim Daewon, a good young left wing/forward. He’s part of the Olympic qualifying squad and if he puts together a solid goalscoring season, I could certainly see Bento giving him a look for depth. In fact, he might be poached by a bigger club if he has a breakout season. Cho Youngwook, FC Seoul’s young attacking midfielder, is another really promising young player. He’s going to play in his second U20 World Cup in May and he’s certainly on the radar for the senior squad for the EAFF Championship this December. From Jeonbuk, the young attacking players Han Seunggyu and Lee Keunho have a lot of potential as well.
On the defensive side, the biggest breakout player has got to be Hwang Hyunsoo. He wasn’t necessarily all that impressive at the Asian Games and Cho Yumin was usually preferred to pair with Kim Minjae. However, he started off the season with a brace out from the back and has a spot locked down in FC Seoul’s back three. If he keeps it up and FC Seoul challenges for the title as they hope to, Bento might want to have a look at Hwang.
How do I watch the K League?
Unfortunately, that is not as easy as it should be. Korean streaming platforms like Naver TV and Afreeca are currently geo-blocked outside of Korea, which makes catching streams harder than it should be. To get around this, you could go the route of using VPN connections like NordVPN or StrongVPN to disguise your IP address and gain access to Korean sites. Also, the official K League and SPOTV Youtube channels upload highlights weekly, which I’ve been keeping up with this season (K League or SpoTv). Unfortunately, last year’s free K League Worldwide stream hosted on the K League website and myCujoo looks like it hasn’t been renewed, which is a shame.
K League Round 9 Match to Watch
Jeonbuk Hyundai vs. FC Seoul, Sunday, April 28th, 1 AM EST, 2 PMT KST.
I hope this one lives up to the billing as it should be a good chance to see if the strong starts from both sides are for real. Is FC Seoul back or will Jeonbuk dominate and shut them down at the Jeonju Castle?
Let me know what you think of this new column in the comments. What have you thought of the K League season so far? Did I miss a storyline or standout player? I’ll be back in a few weeks to see how the season is developing!