Editor’s Note: This is the final feature from our exclusive Victory Tour coverage. A huge shoutout to Tavern Contributor Jason Lee for his translations of our interviews with the Korean players. If you like this coverage, please let us know. We hope to bring you more exclusive content with Korean players in the future.
When you talk to the Korean women’s national team players, there is a sense of hope for growth. There is a great hunger to improve as a team and begin to challenge the powerhouse teams in women’s international football. After a rough summer at the Women’s World Cup, the trip to the United States to take on the World Cup champions was a chance to show the world that the players had put France behind them. With two encouraging performances in Charlotte and Chicago, the Taegeuk Nangja did all that and more. Instead of me telling you all about it though, it’s best to let the women themselves tell the story.
The two clear leaders of this squad are Cho Sohyun and Ji Soyun in midfield. One, Cho, rules the midfield with her tough tackles and tidy passing. The other, Ji, pushes forward with the ball at her feet, looking to unleash a bit of magic to beat the keeper. The Korean media and fans call her Ji Messi for her skill moves that remind people of the Argentine maestro. When asked about the first match at practice in Chicago, both had a lot to say. Cho had been nervous that the match in Charlotte would be a struggle since the coaching staff was new and there were new players as well:
Before joining the team, I thought our play might not be the best because of the new coaching staff and players but because everyone worked hard, I was really pleased with the game. I really thought we showed a lot of fight against the world champions and I’m sure the other players thought that as well.
Ji talked about how crucial it was to play a team like the United States. She knew it would help the team improve.
Two years ago, we played twice against the US. The US were a strong team and we were in a learning position. The current US team won the 2019 World Cup and no can can disagree with the fact that they’re the best team in the world. However, playing against these tough teams, I think it’s an opportunity for us to gain a lot of competitiveness. We have the Olympic qualifiers in February and in Asia, there is Australia who are a very dynamic team and like the US, have speed and physicality. Before that game, I think it’s a good opportunity to play against the US.
Throughout the two matches, the Taegeuk Nangja did gain a lot of competitiveness. In both matches, they were able to press the American attack, win possession in tough midfield battles, and block shooting opportunities. Though both Korean goalkeepers received help from the goal post, no American goals were scored from open play. Instead, it was the Taegeuk Nangja’s Achilles heel, set pieces, where the USWNT were able to score their goals.
After the match in Chicago, interim manager Hwang Insun talked about what needs to change in order to concede fewer goals on set pieces:
To be honest, we’re not as strong physically. In set pieces, our players need to check their opponents earlier, engage physically earlier, and jump when they jump. Just paying attention to the direction of their bodies that puts them in the best position to compete for the ball. I hope that by focusing our training on that, we can minimize goals conceded on corner kicks and free kicks.
Over the two matches, it was clear that the Korean players grew in confidence and learned a lot from playing against the World Champions. Here’s Jang Selgi talking about what she learned from the first match in Charlotte:
First of all, I learned that the US players, even if they were young, were different from Korean players in terms of confidence and how relaxed they were. They played like they had a lot of experience and it was really cool to see. I think we have to learn from that while we have a lot of younger players ourselves so we can give them the opportunity to develop.
Ji Soyun echoed this sentiment after the match in Chicago. “We’re still a young team and we need to have more confidence when we play strong opponents. We also need to be more clinical around the box.”
Over two matches though, the Taegeuk Nangja had found a new identity and confidence that they could compete at the highest level. Young players like Kang Chaerim and Son Hwayeon had been instructed to attack and pressure opposing defenders. Gone was a side that was tentative and sitting back, waiting for the opposition to come at them and make a mistake. Now, they were attempting to dictate play and make their opponents uncomfortable. In Chicago, it worked wonders. Where will the Taegeuk Nangja take this newfound confidence next?
In December, they will host the EAFF E-1 Championship in Busan, facing off against rivals Japan, North Korea, and China. This will be their first opportunity to play under newly appointed head coach, Colin Bell (Hwang Insun will remain as his top assistant coach). Then, in February 2020, they will travel to Jeju-do to host the third round of the AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. In Korea’s group are North Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar. If they can overcome North Korea to top the group, they will advance to a two-legged playoff against the second-placed team from the group containing China, Australia, Thailand, and Taiwan (Chinese Taipei). If they finish second, they go up against the winner of the other group. The winner of the two playoffs go to Tokyo 2020, which would be a first Olympics football tournament for the Taegeuk Nangja.
These are the next steps for the Korean Women’s National Team. However, more than just winning matches, Hwang Insun talked about wanting to give hope to the fans after the Women’s World Cup:
As we played the World Cup in France, both myself and the Korean people, thought that the level of Korean women’s football was very low; it was “dead.” There was no hope. However, through this trip, we wanted to give the players and the fans hope that there was still a chance for immense improvement in Korean women’s football and that we have a chance to compete at the World level. I think that hope was shown during this trip.
With the confidence of a young team and the support of the fans, there can only be good things in the future for the Taegeuk Nangja. I’m just excited to see what these players can do next.