We apologize for the delay in our final installment of “Meet the Squad” – Tim and I have been crazy busy this past week – but we’re back with a profile of the three strikers. These three players are arguably the three most exciting forwards Korea has to offer, not counting Lee Seung Woo. Though it remains to be seen if they start together, it would be incredible to see what kind of fantastic plays they can come up with.
For the rest of the preview series:
Name: Suk Hyun Jun (석현준)
Height: 190 cm
Jersey Number: #9
U23 Caps: 1
U23 Goals: 0
Club: FC Porto (Portugal)
Obligatory media nickname: Suk-latan
Does Suk Hyun Jun need any introduction? This recent breakout star has endured an incredible football journey to get to where he is today.
Back in 2009, an 18-year-old up-and-coming striker from Shingal High School waited outside the gates at Ajax AFC in the Netherlands, just sitting there until Martin Jol passed by. Suk did what very few players have the guts to do: straight up ask for a trial. Though rejected a couple times, he kept trying and knocking on the Ajax doors. And miraculously, he was granted a trial, impressed Jol enough, and signed for Ajax. The following is an excerpt from the English Ajax website:
Can you imagine that? A kid from Shingal High School, who was called up to the U17 team but never played, impressing Martin Jol of all people at Ajax of all places?
The only thing that could make this story the greatest success story of all time would have been Suk Hyun Jun succeeding at Ajax and earning himself a move to RM/Barca, but alas, that’s a little too high of an ask. Instead of languishing on the Ajax bench, Suk looked to other clubs – a lot of them at that. Before setting at his current FC Porto, Suk had played for Ajax, Gronigen, Maritimo, Al-Ahli, Nacional, and Vitória Setúbal. That, my friends, is 7 clubs at only 25 years of age (fun facts: Suk has scored for every club except for Ajax, and proves that you technically CAN escape the desert leagues). Vitória would be his breakout year. By scoring 9 goals in only 16 league appearances, he attracted the interest of then-coach Lopetegui and jumped at the opportunity of playing for Porto instead of waiting to have at least one full consistent season. In yet another edition of the “Curse of the Freshman KPA,” Lopetegui got sacked shortly after signing Suk and Suk started to fall out of favor ever since. It is currently rumored that Turkish clubs (Galatasaray) and the Romanian club Steaua București are interested. But until the Olympics are over, we will not get a good idea of his club situation.
As one of the wildcards this 2016 Olympic cycle, we can safely bet SHJ will be starting pretty much every game unless STY wants to rest him. This generation’s forwards have not been very convincing (even back in 2012, where all the goals came from Moon Chang Jin and the other attacking mids), paving the path for Hwang Hee Chan in January 2016. But HHC, despite all his talent, is three younger than most players in the tournament, a little inconsistent, and not quite in form right now. Plus, Suk has been playing much better than all the other forwards on the senior NT. With his physicality, decent dribbling skills, and extremely powerful shots (i.e. all his Vitoria FK’s + his goal against Petr Cech in June), SHJ will, without a doubt, score quite a few goals this tournament.
Name: Son Heung Min (손흥민)
Height: 184 cm
Jersey Number: #7
U23 Caps: 0
U23 Goals: 0
Club: Tottenham Hotspur (England)
Obligatory media nickname: Sonaldo
Guys do I even need to go in depth into Son Heung Min? This man is without a doubt, the most well-known South Korean player out there, and has been making literally all of the “___ Players to Watch at the Olympics” articles out there. From his years at HSV, Bayer Leverkusen, and his fantastic start to the season with Tottenham, he is the player opponents will most fear due to his speed, shot, and dribbling. There’s a good reason a number of fans have called for a counterattacking strategy in the senior NT centered around unleashing SHM on one or two defenders.
For the purposes of this preview, let’s talk about Son Heung Min in his current state, because we all know this guy is either REALLY hot or REALLY cold.
As of now, he’s not in good form. Though SHM recovered from a small injury towards the end of the EPL season to score two important goals, he was completely invisible against Spain and Czech Republic. He was also very poor in Tottenham’s preseason match against Juventus. In the ideal scenario, SHM can deal with the “easier” U23 defenders, score some goals and regain his confidence, guide us out of the group, and become an absolute beast in the knockout stages. But just as likely is the following scenario: SHM struggles against Germany marking the crap out of him, fails to gel with the team having flown into Brazil so late, and goes into “Invisible Sonny” mode all tournament. I hate making simplifications like this, but a lot actually depends on which Son Heung Min shows up to the Olympics (because there are many other things that can also go wrong).
Name: Hwang Hee Chan (황희찬)
Height: 177 cm
Jersey Number: #11
U23 Caps: 8
U23 Goals: 1 (many more assists)
Club: RB Salzburg/FC Liefering (Austria)
Position: FW, sometimes LW
Obligatory media nickname: Korean Suarez
Hwang Hee Chan was an elite Korean football prospect since he was only 12. He was a recipient of the Cha Bum Kun award, awarded to only the greatest prodigies, such as Ki Sung Yong, Baek Seung Ho, and Seo Myung Won (runners up include Park Ji Sung, Moon Chang Jin, Han Chan Hee, Lee Dong Gook, and Lee Seung Woo).
Hwang Hee Chan, until he was 18 years old at least, has fully lived up to that expectation. He was scoring for fun at Pohang Jecheol HS, and pulled some incredible performances at the 2012 AFC U16 tournament, where Korea very unluckily failed to qualify for the 2013 U17 WC.
Things went a little downhill for Hwang Hee Chan as he got embroiled in transfer controversy (Salzburg paid pennies to the club that developed Hwang into the elite talent he became), and was part of an ill-fated U19 side that despite incredible individual talent, lost to Japan and drew China 0-0 under the horrible misdirection of then-coach Kim Sang Ho. However, when Hwang Hee Chan started scoring for fun at Liefering and Shin Tae Yong made the decision to call up the 19 year old to the U22 team in late 2015/early 2016, Hwang Hee Chan was catapulted back into the limelight as Korea’s most exciting striker.
This guy has always had some incredible footwork. His dribbling isn’t of the Lee Seung Woo mold, who just sort of speeds/breezes past people. In fact, I think watching Hwang Hee Chan dribble is even cooler – he likes to use changes in momentum, slows down and speeds up, and cuts direction frequently. He’s also got a pretty good positional sense as well, and overall, facilitates attack very well. Although HHC has only scored one goal with the U23 team so far, this guy actually has initiated the vast majority of Korea’s goals. Starting with that solo assist vs. Australia and ending with the > 50 meter run where he dribbled past three Qatar defenders to set up Moon Chang Jin – Hwang Hee Chan has racked up many assists + “2nd assists.”
This guy got so much hype after the 2016 AFC U22 Championship (much of it deserved, imo) that Hwang Hee Chan was officially christened the BigSoccer Korea’s Messiah. This remains one of my favorite posts so far:
We also got videos with headlines like this: “MotM after only 17 minutes”
Any many, many highlight videos (just search his name you’ll get multiple pages of HL vids)
All that aside, I believe Hwang Hee Chan has a lot to offer at this Olympic games. As a joker option off the bench or as a starter next to Suk, Hwang Hee Chan is going to excel – I have yet to be unconvinced by his performance in a U23 NT shirt. What I’m personally more interested in, however, is if this guy can take the next step in his career and start playing regularly + scoring goals for RB Salzburg.
If we really want to see all three starting, there are two ways Shin Tae Yong can go about doing it. There’s the 4-4-2 diamond that is likely not going to make an appearance at the Olympics, in which case SHM would play in the hole with SHJ and HHC up top – a classic “Tom and Jerry” formation (ok, so that’s not the best way of putting it because it’s a Korean phrase and sounds a little dumb in English, but it is sort of like the Kim Shin Wook + Son Heung Min up top formation, but even better). A little more likely is Suk Hyun Jun up top with SHM + HHC wide, but even this is also unlikely because that would leave us pretty imbalanced defensively (neither SHM nor HHC track back much).
Rather, the more likely scenario seems to be Hwang Hee Chan as a bench option. Because with his pace, energy, and dribbling ability, HHC – maybe even more so than SHM – would be the better “off the bench” option. Son and Suk have endured many 90 minute games, while Hwang has not. Though Hwang is a proven U23 player, I believe SHM + SHJ will be the regular starters.