Last summer, one of the most surprising moves of the K League 2018 summer transfer window was the news that Ulsan Hyundai had signed Mix Diskerud, the former USMNT player, on loan from Manchester City. While Ulsan was unable to win the title last season, Mix and the Ulsan Horang-i are currently in the thick of a highly competitive title race this season with Jeonbuk Hyundai and FC Seoul.
With a full year in Korea under his belt, we reached out to Mix to get his thoughts on his experience in Korea, what is so special about Ulsan Hyundai this season, and his love for the Ulsan Hyundai fans.
How did the opportunity to play in Korea with Ulsan Hyundai come about?
Coach Kim Do-hoon and his coaching staff had been following and “monitoring” me for a while without me knowing. They apparently liked what they saw and wanted that type of player to stabilize the team through the midfield. I guess I was just perceived to fit that style of play that Coach Do-hoon wants the Horangi to play.
I am still not quite sure about the relationship between Ulsan Hyundai FC and Mr. Kwang Hyuk Park (“Kenny”), but he came to Gothenburg and spoke about Korea, Culture, Ulsan and Hyundai — totally charmed me and my father – and he also argued convincingly enough to get the principals of Manchester City FC to condone his proposed transfer offer.
Did you talk with any of the foreign players in the K League or those who had played in Korea in the past before signing with Ulsan?
No. But I checked out UHFC myself, and saw old matches and got an agent to translate interviews and statements made by Coach Do-hoon.
What was your expectation of what it would be like to live and play in Korea?
Growing up I saw old episodes of M*A*S*H. In part I’m sure that influenced my expectations!? Ha ha.
I really don’t remember what I expected. But growing up in Norway, we have had the chance to listen to and see Soon-Mi Chung in action professionally as a viola and violinist and also outside the life as a performer, and a better ambassador for Korean values and work ethic does probably not exist. Knowing her on one side, and also getting familiar with quality Korean export products in general during my adult years, I guess, both influenced me. I wanted to get closer, and see for myself, the underlying determination and work ethic that have made South Korea what it is today. That was definitely a big part of my motivation.
What has been the biggest adjustment that you’ve made to your game from playing in the K League?
None. My job on the field in any given match is and has been to adjust our team’s style to the style of our opponents, unless we are strong enough to outright dominate. I guess I am a type of player you can label a coach’s player, one that is good at bringing the coach or coaches’ ideas onto the field and managing that idea in practicality. I am soldier with some rank, sort of speak, that is loyal to the General. I do not get selected due to my physique, speed or sprint abilities, but rather because of how I interpret and defend tactically against our opponents.
Maybe I am a little better than most to foresee what will happen two or three plays, or seconds, into the immediate future.
Was your expectation of living and playing in Korea different to what the reality has been? In what way?
All Koreans I have met and really gotten to know have been a blessing. However, most Koreans in Ulsan are more than a bit shy and suspicious of foreigners, so I have had a problem with integrating in to any part of their social life. I regret not being able to have been better at solving the code for that to happen. However, this has not been a problem regarding the guys on my team. There are a couple Korean guys that I hang out with quite a bit.
What was the hardest thing about living in Korea for you to get used to?
All that squid.
You’re currently top of the table. What exactly is setting this team apart and making sure you get the points week in and week out?
We have an extreme depth in our squad. So with the tight schedule, injuries and whatnot – we are able to rotate players and formations without that effecting the performances to any large extent. As the season has progressed we are now a small group of teams on the top of the K-League that are pushing each other to not slack off at all. And I will be honest, it´s a grind. Every game, point and goal matters. It might come down to that last part…
How was the preseason with this group of players? Did you have a feeling this was a special group that could achieve big things?
We began pre-season with losing some talented players, who I thought would be a difficult task to replace. Thankfully the front office did exactly that. Bringing in ¨game changers¨, strong minds and leaders.
The team traveled to and spent time together in Vietnam and Japan. Fun to experience new places, but we did, of course, not get too much time to explore anything outside our bubble. It was mostly; eat – workout – sleep, and repeat and repeat, during those weeks and months.
How is your communication on the pitch? Do your teammates have phrases in English/Korean that they practice with you to improve chemistry?
YES! Some of the guys do speak some English, but I have caught some Korean phrases that I use during practice and games myself. Just basic stuff, but it seems to be working.
What’s your personal highlight on the pitch in Korea?
Winning against Urawa away. The atmosphere in Japan was amazing. Their fans even saluted us after the game. Now how crazy is that!? Then, a week later, I experienced the low point so far in Korea – which was to lose against the same team and get knocked out of the ACL.
What are your goals with Ulsan Hyundai? Would you like to achieve success in the AFC Champions League after a bitter exit to Urawa Reds earlier this summer?
We wanna win the league. And yes, the Champions League gave me a taste for wanting it even more for years to come.
What’s it like living and playing in Ulsan? Any highlights of the city you can recommend to our readers?
Well, it is an industrial city, as some may know. A refreshing coffee at one of the many cafés by the water and on the beach is something I enjoy spending my time doing. The city center is pleasant with nice shopping malls and my personal favorites – Korean BBQ restaurants. However, the absolute highlight must be to buy a Horangi shirt, put it on, and come to see our beautiful stadium and experience sitting next to our devoted fans during a league match. Haha, if you don’t think I am serious.
Talk a bit about the fans of Ulsan Hyundai. Are there any unique things that you have noticed that are different from the other fans you’ve played for?
I receive so many gifts from fans after practice and games. I am pretty sure that is a common thing here in this country, but I must say I have never experienced anything to that extent before. I do feel bad sometimes though, because I usually have nothing to give back. Maybe a championship could be a way of paying back. The numbers of spectators are not as many as I expected before coming to Korea, and is not nearly as many as K-League deserves and related to the quality of the league, when compared to other world leagues with comparable quality. Having said that, I must underline, that the Ulsan fans that show up here are extremely supportive and caring. It´s like the ¨few and the proud¨. Maybe as a consequence. But I feel half the city must be following, because well wishes, greetings and comments about me staying healthy is a warm wave and norm when I walk the streets of Ulsan.
What’s the coolest thing a fan or fans in Korea have done for you?
Framed photos of myself, huge posters of how much I mean to them are definitely up there, but if I must choose one….. Personally it was pretty cool when they had made a huge TIFO which was displayed during a league game. Urging me to re-sign with the team, a banner was displayed stating, ¨Mix. The last piece of the puzzle”
A huge thanks to Mix for taking the time from a busy season to answer our questions. For more of Mix Diskerud, you can follow him on Twitter here. Ulsan Hyundai face off with Incheon United this Sunday at 6 AM EST/7 PM KST.
Great interview! Hope he stays in Korea beyond this season.
Some of Mix’s comments got me nodding, particularly about attendance. K-League is actually very good relative to other Asian leagues, even tho iirc budgets are markedly lower compared to China or Japan, or even some Middle Eastern leagues (credit to domestic pipeline). But compared to those leagues, attendance #s are frankly underwhelming (tho I think I heard they’re a bit up this yr, nice new stadiums etc). So how to get more butts in seats?
If they could somehow manage that, increase TV ratings/lucrative broadcast deal, more $$ to go around shared by teams (K-1 ofc, so even greater incentive to not get relegated). Then you could field an even better product, gaining even more attn, then even more $$/better product; the good kind of vicious circle. But how to kickstart this? How can Korean interest in football be increased & maintained, not just spikes during World Cup time? Cuz ultimately, a stronger domestic league = a stronger national team.
Hi Dae, I’m just gonna keep it real real simple. Koreans like watching teams that win. And they like it when the national football team wins! And winning K League teams are decently well followed!
So basically, keep winning. The Korean national team will need to keep winning and K League youngsters will need to continue to be successful. What will happen hopefully is this: Koreans will be proud of the local K League boys that are winning for the national team and they will honor them when they come home by watching their K League returns just like the K League saw a spike in attendance again after the U20 run. So to keep it going, let’s have some K League youngsters go win a gold medal in Tokyo.
Winning never hurts lol. Just a few yrs ago tho, teams like Jeonbuk, Suwon & Pohang actually won the AFC Champions League, but I don’t know how much this boosted interest? In fact, I heard somewhere that AFC folks at large were bemoaning the fact that CL games drew so little interest compared to Uefa CL matches, large patches of empty seats (something to do w/ midweek games maybe).
I also recall mention of a K League match-fixing scandal, and that this sent things to heck in a handbasket Fast. That up to that pt, attendance/interest was pretty decent even relative to other Asian leagues, but after this pt everything sank like a stone, and maybe K League is still recovering after all these yrs.
Like you pointed out, Korean & Asian audiences at large like winners, but they seem to look for those winners elsewhere, namely Europe. Have to assume its down to the perceived lvl of quality/”class”. One route, improve that class, and by changing reality hopefully change perception over time.
But just winning in Asia doesn’t seem to be enough up to this pt; maybe win a club World Cup? An AFC Champ beating a Barca or ManU in a non-exhibition match might help, just a bit ;P And if that AFC giant-killer happens to be a K League team, so much the better. But the quality has to be there to pull this off, and that quality requires a comprehensive system w/ a big bankroll intelligently used, and that money has to come from somewhere.
In the US at least, its broadcast deals that bring in the big bucks, more than anything else, whether tickets, merch, what have you. But advertisers don’t pay if there aren’t eyes, and there are no eyes if there isn’t something worth seeing. Which brings us back to winning, but beyond what Asian leagues have grown accustomed to, cuz that hasn’t been enough.
Anyway, just some thoughts, just hoping for a roadmap to improvement.
Dae, you’re making a lot of strong points here. It is very true that the AFC Champions League just doesn’t garner much interest in Korea. I think when Korean teams win I’m sure the fans are happy, but early round/group stage matches always have terrible attendance.
Yes, the matchfixing scandal was very very bad. Before that, K League did have really solid attendance overall.
I don’t think Koreans happen to look for winners elsewhere. I think the big thing is that the rise of preseason tours to Asia may have coincided with that matchfixing scandal. The European teams started coming to Asia (China and Singapore mostly) more recently in the summer and this kind of became en vogue in the early 2010s right after that scandal. So, Koreans may have been turned off by the scandal and tried out European teams that were now on TV for their preseason. Then, Sonny blew up a few years later and that was that. The K League is getting a big boost because of the Asian Games win (since the majority of that squad were K League players) and the U20 WC (also K League players). Hopefully it continues to help that the Korean baseball league is struggling for attendance and maybe those baseball fans are switching back to football.
The Club World Cup is changing soon so more Korean clubs may have a chance to win it in its new format. However, I don’t think it’s that big a deal whether or not Korean clubs win this, because most people know that it means nothing and is just a FIFA cash grab.
So I’ll present my sort of roadmap to improvement for K League attendance and Korean football in general. I’ve sort of written about it in long form here: http://www.taegukwarriors.com/korean-football-reform-k-league-attendance/. Also here: http://www.taegukwarriors.com/korean-football-reform-community-engagement-marketing/
Basically, the K League has to continue to cultivate local fanbases that back the players. They need to continue to construct stadiums that are small enough to create great atmosphere and entice fans to come to the matches. They need to continue to invest in the youth systems at each club and provide legitimate pathways for the young players to break into the first team (the K League has a current rule that all K League teams must name at least 2 U22 players to the matchday roster and start one of them). In addition, the KFA needs to continue to invest in making the university teams competitive for the players that choose to attend college before turning pro and also make sure urge the K League to provide adequate salaries for young players. The league is improving in these things and I do see it on an overall positive trajectory currently. There is still far for the league to go but it will hopefully continue to be growing in attendance in the next few seasons as the current young K League stars continue to play well at international level as well.
The TV deal is a good point and I don’t think the K League generates nearly enough revenue from their current deal. I imagine that they will have to require broadcasters to pay more for the next TV contract that they have because it would pump in some revenue to the league. That being said, MLS is a quite corrupt organization that has pretty sketchy ways of ensuring a lucrative TV deal that helps the league grow so I don’t really think that’s the example K League wants to follow. For the most part, the K League needs to continue focusing locally on building the fan bases and making sure the stadium experience is enticing for Koreans of all walks of life. They’re building it and the people will come eventually I hope (lol Field of Dreams reference).
Thx so much for the links, great reads, incl the comments. Yeah, I was just throwing the club WC idea out there, such is my frustration haha. Hope is, w/ more competitiveness and not just a Euro win that’s a gimme, interest as well as value in winning might rise.
Imo for a league to rise, it needs to be genuinely competitive anchored by bankable stars. But stars command hefty wages, and they also don’t want to play in half empty stadiums. So 2 clear shortcomings, $$ & butts. China & Japan, and to an extent the US, have made their calls, bringing in (maybe over-the-hill) stars (at exorbitant salaries). But this has still had the desired effect: increased interest, translating into revenue, opening the door for improvement.
Now, I will say I do NOT want K League paying obscene premiums just to bring in names, like you said that probly isn’t viable/sustainable, but maybe a grade just below that could help? Still recognizable names that can still play, if not at world-class, that are expensive but don’t cost an arm & a leg.
Currently, K League is forced to bargain hunt in S. America & Eastern EU for diamonds in the rough, or hope for an opportunistic loan/transfer; if at some pt revenue rose, they might be able to splurge now & then, make success more by design & less by chance. Btw, some are really good diamonds, like Taggart, Cesinha, and our guy Mix.
Ultimately, the pie in the sky dream is a league where players are paid on par w/ other good leagues, cuz financial support is more on par w/ those leagues, and where lvl of play is excellent, so it can become a desirable destination. One where a good local player could stick around, make a really good living and still rise to world class quality, w/out having to fly halfway round the world.
As an aside, sometimes a league can be a bit TOO successful for its own good: pays too well w/out really being world-class competitive, cuz they have a rabid fanbase that throws money at them regardless, so local players stick around in their comfort zone w/out increasing quality. China comes to mind, as does Russia I think. Here’s an interesting vid on Mexico’s situation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kwrKUUKCu8
Anyway, this almost seems like a problem worth having lol, compared to K League’s current state.