Another year, another K League season – and an abundance of exciting storylines. Can FC Seoul defend their title? Will Jeonbuk avenge last season’s punishment by hoisting the trophy? Are Gangwon FC the real deal? Will the Bluewings bounce back? We’ll explore each team’s chances at making the top or avoiding the drop in this simple but comprehensive K League season preview. Part One: Tavern’s P Half.
Seoul avoided its usual slow start last season, thanks to Adriano and Dejan, and a were comfortable and competitive second for most of last season. Choi Yongsoo’s departure from the manager’s position and Hwang Sunhong’s subsequent hiring took the wind out of Seoul’s sails, but they recovered in time for Jeonbuk’s 9 point deduction and stole the title on the final matchday thanks to Park Chuyoung’s dramatic winning goal. Champions, 70 points.
Notable Additions: Lee Sangho (Suwon), Shin Gwanghoon (Pohang), Kim Keunhwan (Ulsan), Ha Daesung (Tokyo), Maurinho (Cricuma, on loan)
Notable Subtractions: Yoo Sanghoon, Kim Namchun, Yun Jutae (Army), Park Yongwoo (Ulsan), Adriano (Shijiazhuang), Takahagi (Tokyo), Ko Kwangmin (???)
Storyline: Are Seoul missing too many parts to repeat as champions? The squad has gotten weaker in almost every position. An older Ha Daesung is a step down from the indefatigable Takahagi. Adriano’s departure means the goalscoring workload rests on the aging Dejan and Park Chuyoung. A proven centreback partner for the slowing Kwak Taehwi is missing. And no backup goalkeeper means it’s cross your fingers and hope Yoo Hyun doesn’t do this time.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The squad remains relatively strong for the K League, there is depth to go around and Hwang Sunhong is a trophy winning machine. Though if the first two ACL games are any indication, Seoul will certainly not have an easy road to a repeat this season.
Tavern Writers’ Ranking: Tied for 1st (Jae and Tim called Seoul) (Tim regrets that decision, but oh well)
Tim’s Power Radar:
Last season: Jeonbuk were dominant all season long, not losing a league game until Round 35. Choi Kanghee’s system was unbeatable, and the squad was packed with a number of game-changers. They only improved as time went on. However, questionable rotation by Choi in order to favor the ACL saw the Green Machine lose points in the league at the death, not to mention their 9-point penalty for their 2012 bribery scandal coming into effect late in the year. Losing the league at home on the final matchday stung – but Asian continental glory and a respectable Club World Cup showing meant that it was all-in-all a successful season for Jeonbuk. 2nd, 67 points, ACL champions.
Notable subtractions: Lee Jongho (Ulsan), Kim Changsoo (Ulsan), Choi Kyubaek (Ulsan), Kim Hyungil (Guangzhou), Han Kyowon (loan, Hwaseong), Leonardo (Al Jazira), Kwoun Suntae (Kashima)
Storyline: Expelled from the ACL, are Jeonbuk now title favorites? Jeonbuk were dealt a blow when the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld an AFC ruling expelling Jeonbuk Hyundai from the 2017 Champions League. Now ineligible to repeat as Asian champions, for the first time in several years, Jeonbuk’s full focus will be on the league. This window’s star signing, Kim Jinsu, will, along with 2014 WC veteran Lee Yong, wreak havoc on the flanks from the fullback positions. Otherwise, save for the departure of all-star midfielder Leonardo, the squad remains remarkably similar, with Lee Jaesung, Kim Bokyung, Kim Shinwook, Lee Donggook and Lopes donning the Jeonbuk green and blue(?!).
Tavern Writers’ Ranking: Tied for 1st (Roy and Jinseok call for Jeonbuk)
Tim’s Power Radar
Last season: When Jeju manager Jo Sunghwan declared he wanted his club to make the Asian Champions League, I admittedly had a good laugh. Though bombastic in attack, Jeju had been too inconsistent with their performance and too leaky in defense to give the good teams a run for their money. But I got my just desserts as Jeju’s remarkable home form (only three home losses) and outrageous goal scoring (71, t-1st in the league) overshadowed all their shortcomings, coasting to a third place finish in a season when perennial contenders Suwon and Pohang dropped off the map. 59 points, 3rd place
Notable additions: Magno Alves (Goianiense), Kim Wonil (Pohang), Frederic Mendy (Ulsan), Cho Younghyung (Shijiazhuang), Jin Sungwook (Incheon), Lee Changgeun (Suwon FC), Lee Chandong (Gwangju), Park Jinpo (Seongnam).
Notable subtractions: Kim Honam (Army, Sangju), Kim Hyun (Police, Asan), Lee Keunho (Gangwon), Jeong Yeongchong (Gwangju)
Storyline: A 3-4-3 and a league victory? Jeju have gotten stronger this year, there’s no doubt. Improving depth in all positions, especially at defense, with the promising signings of former KNT centreback Cho Yonghyeong and Pohang legend Kim Wonil, but not losing their offensive edge, means that Jeju look to be a well balanced side. A 3-4-3 system – with a withdrawn attacking midfielder in Lee Changmin, and two strikers among Marcelo, Mendy, Hwang Ilsoo and Magno – allows their wingback threats (Team of the Year leftback Chung Woon and veteran rightback Park Jinpo) to flourish. And Lee Chandong’s physical presence helps for a more balanced midfield. All in all, Jeju look like a tough team to beat and I wouldn’t rule them out for their first title since 1989.
Tavern Writers’ Ranking: 3rd
Tim’s Power Radar:
Last season: It wasn’t supposed to be ho-hum this time around, and though a 4th place finish and ACL berth doesn’t tell it, it was just that – ho-hum. Ulsan were decidedly boring last season. They didn’t score much, and they didn’t concede much, and nothing really exciting ever happened. Suwon and Pohang’s collapses were all that Ulsan needed to finish 4th – but restless fans demanded the head of manager Yoon Junghwan, who happily packed his bags and returned to Japan, this time at Cerezo Osaka. 4th, 54 points
Notable additions: Lee Jongho (Jeonbuk), Kim Changsoo (Jeonbuk), Choi Kyubaek (Jeonbuk), Park Yongwoo (Seoul), Miroslav Orsic (Changchun Yatai), Richard Windbichler (Austria Wien), Dimitri Petratos (Brisbane Roar)
Notable subtractions: Lee Yong (Jeonbuk), Lee Jaesung, the defender (Jeonbuk), Mendy (Jeju), Chikashi Masuda (Al Sharjah), Ha Sungmin (Kyoto), Kim Taehwan (Sangju, army)
Storyline: Rejuvenated Ulsan – for real this time? Ulsan’s been a side seeking its identity for a couple years now. There was the Lee Chunsoo/Yoo Sangchul era where they claimed their first league title in 2005, then the “Iron Mace” counterattack era that saw them win continental glory in 2012 with Lee Keunho and Kwak Taehwi. Every season since has been filled with turnover and false hope for Tigers fans who have gradually abandoned the club. New boss Kim Dohoon’s promise to “make the Tigers roar again” defined his signings of dynamic Lee Jongho, A-League proven forward Dimitri Petratos and skillful winger Miroslav Orsic. However, questions remain if Ulsan can integrate these key players into a new-look side, with a new boss and a new system in time to be competitive on two fronts. Their 6-0 drubbing of Brisbane last Wednesday will encourage Ulsan supporters who desperately want their club to forge a new identity.
Tavern Writers’ Ranking: 4th
Tim’s Power Radar:
Last season: 2016 could have been a year to forget for Suwon fans. Last-minute defeats, drawing basically everybody in the league twice (18 draws!), nervous glances at the league table (as they hovered just barely above relegation) and their first bottom half finish since 2010 – yup, bruised egos were the norm at the Big Bird. After finishing twice in 2014 and 2015, Bluewings fans’ wait for a trophy had no end in sight. However, Suwon’s quiet navigation of the early rounds of the KFA Cup meant that Seo Jungwon’s men still had something to fight for. A Super Match final over two legs and an epic penalty shootout later, and the Bluewings had their first trophy in 5 years in a season where they deserved nothing more than a wooden spoon. 7th, 48 points, Cup champions
Notable additions: Kim Minwoo (Sagan Tosu), Park Gidong (Jeonnam), Matthew Jurman (Sydney FC), Shin Hwayong (Pohang), Damir Sovsic (Dinamo Zagreb)
Notable subtractions: Kwon Changhoon (Dijon), Lee Sangho (FC Seoul), Cho Donggeon (Sagan Tosu), Baek Jihoon (Seoul E-Land), Hong Chul, Shin Segye (Sangju, army)
Storyline: Life without Kwon Changhoon – in a Conte 3-4-3? Obviously, Suwon Samsung had the most notable departure of the K League transfer window, with beloved midfielder Kwon Changhoon trying his luck in Europe at Dijon. The loss of their starlet midfielder means a new system and shape for Suwon, who have persistently stuck with a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 for several consecutive seasons. Does the answer lie in a Conte 3-4-3? That seems to be what Seo Jungwon is striving for. Johnathan is your Diego Costa, Santos is Eden Hazard and Kim Minwoo is Marcos Alonso. Add on a uniquely Bluewings mix of Yeom Kihun and Lee Yongrae, a solid goalkeeper in Shin Hwayong and an Australian centreback (you can’t go wrong with those in the K League) in Matthew Jurman – and you get a technically adept and potentially dominant Suwon side. I think their biggest problem last year was mental toughness – they’ve got veterans and club legends to make up for that. But with Suwon these days, you just never really know.
Tavern Writers’ Prediction: 5th
Tim’s Power Radar:
Last season: Gangwon were underdogs all season long last year… in the K League Challenge. But Daejeon never bounced back, Busan lagged behind and E-Land were in crisis – enter the men in orange. An 89th minute winner in the first playoff, a 93rd minute winner in the second, and Gangwon had scraped through to face Seongnam in the final playoff. There again, no one pegged Gangwon for the win, and despite being dominated in both legs, an away goal at Tancheon saw them promoted to the top flight by the finest of margins. 4th (2nd division), promotion/relegation playoff winners
Notable additions: Lee Keunho (Jeju), Oh Beomseok (Hangzhou), Kim Kyungjung (Tokushima), Park Sunju (Pohang), Moon Changjin (Pohang), Lee Bumyoung (Fukuoka), Hwang Jinsung (Seongnam), Jung Jogook (Gwangju), Diego Mauricio (Shijianzhuang), Valentinos Sielis (Limassol), Luong Xuan Truong (HAGL)
Notable subtractions: Seo Bomin (Pohang), Luiz Henrique (Ajman)
Storyline: After unexpected transfer flurry, Gangwon dream big dreams – Nobody saw this coming. Gangwon won the transfer window. Period. In volume, yes, but also in talent. They picked up last year’s top scorer Jung Jogook and paid him handsomely. They realized they needed to supply the veteran forward – enter Moon Changjin. Then they signed former AFC Player of the Year Lee Keunho, who’s still got something left in him. Kim Kyungjung brings experience from France, goalkeeper Lee Bumyoung stopped THAT penalty in London 2012, tried and tested Oh Beomseok left China money behind him – they’ve all come to Gangwon. And they’re building a squad of hope. Dare I say – Olympic-size dreams? Gangwon Province have gone all out on this squad, and many suspect it’s some sort of (potentially ill-advised) publicity stunt for the Pyeongchang Games. This kind of spending from them is unsustainable, and immediate results are somewhat unrealistic given this is not the Gangwon side who got promoted – but there are quite a few above average K Leaguers in here. This is the dark horse of the K League season – no one knows what they’re going to do.
Tavern Writers’ Prediction: 6th (Roy doesn’t want you to know he called them fourth)
Tim’s Power Radar: