Yes, it’s a special guest post from yours truly! Fresh off the boat (so to speak) and back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. (I miss Busan though). Anyway, enough about me, let’s talk about K League (do I get money for throwing out their slogan?). Tim is busy with his studies and tweeting his frustrations with Canadian politics, so I thought I’d give a (long) update on how the teams have been doing, and just what’s up in the domestic scene.
K LEAGUE CLASSIC
So, last weekend was round 33. What’s special about that? Well, it’s the final “pre-split” round, and now the league will do that thing where the top six and bottom six have a mini-playoffs of sorts. Who’s where and what can you expect in the final five rounds?
The league leaders are, as expected, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC. The green boys have been leaders since round 5, but have often failed to impress. Choi Kang-hee’s boys rarely batter the opposition, and often come across as grinding out results. The loss of Edu in the summer certainly put a damper on things, and it’s taken new signings Lee Keun-ho and Urko Vera a little while to really get going. Old man (and new “슈퍼맨”) Lee Dong-gook continues to chip in his share, and Lee Jae-sung is still ticking away. The defense doesn’t seem quite as resolute as they have been in the past. However, Jeonbuk should secure their fourth league title (and second in a row) with a couple games to spare.
Chasing them is, again as expected, Suwon Samsung Bluewings FC. Suwon is a difficult team (for me) to really get a grasp on. From a base statistics point of view, they’re virtually equal to Jeonbuk. Suwon has scored one goal less than Jeonbuk and conceded one goal more all season, yet they find themselves eight points adrift. Again, like Jeonbuk, Suwon had to adjust to the loss of their top forward, Chong Te-se, as the North Korean international (is he still an international?) returned to the J League and signed with Shimizu. Kwon Chang-hoon is the breakout player of the year, and their productive Maetan HS academy has churned out some other solid players. Injuries have been a constant issue for Suwon, and they’ve coped relatively well. Suwon will have an eye on catching Jeonbuk for the title, but will also have one eye on the three teams chasing them for an ACL spot.
Currently in third-place is Pohang Steelers FC. League winners a couple years ago, Hwang Sun-hong’s boys haven’t been able to reach those heights again, and are going through a bit of a transition spell. It’s been a while, but the loss of Lee Myung-joo last year really set the club back. The team went from being an eye-catching attacking side to a much more defensively-resolute outfit very quickly. Hwang has tried to rectify that this season and has had some success. Of the fix top half teams, Pohang checks in as the fourth highest scoring team (Jeonbuk, Suwon, Seoul, and Jeju are above them), but they can boast of having the stingiest defense in the league having conceded just 28 thus far. Kim Seung-dae has found a bit of form this season, and Son Joon-ho is having a solid year as well. Moon Chang-jin can light it up at times, but has struggled with injuries. Pohang will have a hard time catching Suwon, and will certainly look to hang onto their ACL spot with Seongnam and Seoul just behind.
Fourth (on goal difference) is Seongnam FC. Seongnam may be the surprise team of the season. I don’t imagine many figured them to be top-half much less challenging for another ACL spot, but here they are. Seongnam has relied on the classic combo of a tough defense and a couple talented attackers to get where they are. Their 37 goals scored puts them 8th overall, but 29 conceded is joint 2nd (with Incheon). Hwang Eui-jo and the return of Kim Do-heon (Du-hyun? 두현) has been big as the two have combined for 20 goals and 8 assists. Just two points behind Pohang, Seongnam has a very real chance of catching them for the final league ACL spot.
In fifth (again on goal difference) is FC Seoul. Seoul did their usual thing of getting off to a very slow start, having languished in the bottom half of the table until round 13. After that they went on a bit of a run and have since been in the top half comfortably, changing positions with Pohang and Seongnam. The arrival of Adriano from Daejeon, and the free signing of Park Chu-young has helped address the team’s biggest need (forward). The two have combined for 14 league goals, not too bad, and perhaps if the duo go through a proper offseason and start the season together they can do even better. Seoul’s remaining issue is a lack of creativity with an aging Mauricio Molina being their sole outlet (9 assists). That could be their undoing as they also chase the final ACL spot.
Bringing up the rear for the top half is Jeju United FC. Jeju snuck in on the final pre-split round as Incheon fell to Seongnam, and Jeju scored a late winner over Jeonbuk. On 46 points Jeju is firmly out of the running for anything, and will likely just see out their season and try to play spoiler for the other five. Jeju has unfortunately gained more headlines for the antics of former player Kang Su-il rather than anything they’ve done on the pitch this season. But the islanders are capable of some decent stuff. Brazilian attacker Lopes has notched 11 goals and 9 assists, and former Korea NT hopeful Yoon Bitgaram has chipped in 6 and 5.
Incheon United FC just fell out of the top half on the last day (see Jeju). Along with Seongnam, Incheon is in the running for surprise team of the season. While their accomplishments won’t rate as highly as their fellow Gyeonggi counterparts, Incheon arguably had to deal with more difficult circumstances given the city’s financial woes and the knock on effect for the club. Personally, I topped Incheon for the relegation scrap, and the fact that they have comfortably stayed away from it and still have a shot at the ACL (through the KFA Cup) is remarkable. Incheon is a typical grind it out, defensive team. They can be d*mn hard to beat, even for the strongest sides in Korea.
Following in 8th place is Jeonnam Dragons FC. The Dragons are probably one of the more disappointed teams in the league right now. A couple months ago and they were sitting pretty in 3rd place. Their attacking trio of Stevica Ristic, Mislav Orsic, and Lee Jong-ho combining well (30 goals, 12 assists combined). But since the calendar changed to August the team has gone winless in their last 10 league outings (0-5-5). The season is not completely lost (yet) for the Gwangyang outfit as they are still in the Korean FA Cup. Jeonnam is safe from relegation, but chase of the cup could give a glimmer of hope for others in the bottom half to improve their position.
In 9th is probably the most disappointing team (relative to preseason expectations) in the league, Ulsan Hyundai FC. An exciting young coach in Yoon Jung-hwan, the big, gangly Kim Shin-wook up top, national team goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu in goal, and veteran playmaker Server Djeparov in midfield. Ulsan, on paper, was expected to push the boys at the top. And for the first month or so they looked it, but then the wheels came off and Ulsan plummeted down the table. They spent most of the season uncomfortably close to the relegation playoff spot, and only a late season burst has seen them move clear. Like Jeonnam above them, Ulsan will be relying on the Korean FA Cup to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.
Gwangju FC checks in at 10th. Gwangju got off to a solid start, playing some nice football and surprising others with their aggressiveness. But eventually the goals dried up, and the defense started to crack. Their last 18 games reads more like the relegation candidate many expected them to be. 2 wins, 7 draws, and 9 losses. But their good start ensures that they won’t likely be drawn into the relegation playoff, which in and of itself makes this year a success.
Sigh… in the relegation playoff spot is Busan IPark FC. It’s been a trying year for the sparse crowds that make the trek to the Asiad to see Park Gi-ryang, I mean Busan. The team’s lack of goals (27, joint last) is a big part of why they’re where they are, but I’ll bring up (for the first time here) the team’s disappointing tendency to concede late goals. To date Busan has conceded 18 goals in the last 15 minutes of matches, and they’ve conceded a whopping 10 goals in the final five minutes. How many points have been dropped? How much damage has been done to team morale? And yes, as the trend has continued it is something you can just feel in the stadium. That nervousness, that dreaded feeling of “when” not “if” it’ll happen. Busan is highly unlikely to catch Gwangju for 10th, but should be secure in knowing that they’ll have a fighting chance to avoid relegation, unlike…
Daejeon Citizen FC, who are last (sorry Tim). If things have been trying in Busan, they’ve been disastrous in Daejeon. The Citizen have been last since round 2 and never looked like getting out. 27 scored, 65 conceded. Ouch. Citizen fans don’t even (to my knowledge) have pretty cheerleaders to look at and distract themselves from the mess on the pitch. Adriano’s messy move to Seoul certainly didn’t help things, and when they had a bright spot in Hwang In-beom, he had to go and suffer a season-ending injury. When it rains, it pours. Daejeon enter the split 11 points adrift of Busan, and considering they only earned 13 in 33 matches, it’s hard to see them earning virtually the same amount in 5. A return to the Challenge awaits.
What they’re chasing and thoughts
Jeonbuk: Title. 8 point gap. Jeonbuk would have to lose three of five to give Suwon a chance.
Suwon: Title, ACL spot. See above for title chance. Suwon has an 8 point gap to dropping out of the ACL. They should hold onto it.
Pohang: ACL spot. Only 2 points ahead of Seoul and Seongnam. It’ll be a dogfight. vs Seoul 2-1-0, vs Seongnam 2-1-0. #Edge
Seongnam: ACL spot. Chasing Pohang while holding off Seoul. Tough. vs Pohang 0-1-2, vs Seoul 1-2-0.
Seoul: ACL spot. Same as above. vs Pohang 0-1-2, vs Seongnam 0-2-1. #underdogs (oh yeah, the cup too).
Jeju: Nothing. Spoiler or spoiling others? Jeju could throw a wrench in others’ plans or be a gift if they decide to start their offseason early (I think the latter).
Incheon: Nothing. KFA Cup. KFA Cup. KFA Cup.
Jeonnam: Nothing. KFA Cup. KFA Cup. KFA Cup.
Ulsan: Nothing. KFA Cup. KFA Cup. KFA Cup.
Gwangju: Nothing. Nothing.
Busan: Top flight survival (via playoff). Don’t f*ck this up. Don’t f*ck this up. Don’t f*ck this up!
Daejeon: Nothing. K League Challenge… yay!
Your reward for reading all the way to the end (or skipping to it)
Welcome back Jae! You have thoughts on who FC Seoul will eventually replace at RB the honorable and retiring Cha Du-Ri?