Editor’s Note: We will have more coverage from the weekend at the Victory Tour this week. I plan to write a feature with quotes from the Korean players once we have translated their interviews from Korean. Please look out for that as well as a surprise podcast where we talk women’s football with an expert guest.
Everyone had been talking about it. The coaches, the players, the Korean sports media, and the fans. 2019 had been a terrible year for the Korean Women’s National Football Team.
It all had so much promise. The Taegeuk Nangja came into 2019 having earned the final Asian berth in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup with a 5-0 victory over the Philippines in the fifth-place playoff. Then, they put together a strong performance at the 2018 Asian Games where they went toe to toe with Asian powerhouse Japan in a 2-1 thriller in the semifinals. Another bronze medal was bittersweet, but the football looked promising. In the semifinals it looked very clearly like they were ready to take the step up in Asia and become a legitimate equal to Japan.
It was all a mirage. What happened in the beginning of 2019 was incredibly disappointing and frustrating for all involved. The coach, Yoon Deok-yeo, who had possibly overstayed his welcome, oversaw a preparation for the Women’s World Cup that confused all observers. The losses mounted, Korea kept experimenting with new tactics and formations, and countless different players and lineups were used. It all left the team looking confused by the time they took the field to open the World Cup against France.
What followed was hard to watch. A group stage exit included a 4-0 thrashing from hosts France, a frustrating 2-0 loss to Nigeria, and a disheartening 2-1 loss to Norway. The squad left France without a point just 4 years after advancing out of the group stage for the first time in their history.
The aftermath did nothing to brighten the mood. Yoon Deok-yeo resigned as manager and a seemingly strong candidate with experience with the national team was brought in. Choi In-cheol, the coach of the hugely successful Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels WFC, had coached the national team in the early 2010s before the job was given to Yoon Deok-yeo. Unfortunately, the KFA had failed to do proper vetting of the hire and were unaware that former national team and club players had accused him of verbal and physical abuse in his coaching past. An apology was made by Kim Pangon for failing to find this out and Choi was forced to resign.
It was under these circumstances that the Korean Women’s National Team, led by interim manager Hwang Insun, came to the US to take part in the Victory Tour with the US Women’s National Team. I’ll be frank, my expectations were incredibly low. I thought that the USWNT would make easy work of the Taegeuk Nangja and win the matches in Charlotte and Chicago. I am happy to report I was incredibly wrong about this.
In Charlotte, the Taegeuk Nangja were let loose on a tired USWNT squad that had the busiest year in women’s football. Hwang Insun instructed her players to press aggressively and play a style that honestly reminds me of the press that Bento wants his midfielders and forwards to play for the Taegeuk Warriors. The result? The USWNT offense was very clearly uncomfortable in the midfield and unable to string together the attacking play they wanted. From open play, the back four were able to hold strong and snuff out the US attack of Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and Mallory Pugh. The 2-0 victory for the USWNT was achieved by two set piece goals where Rapinoe put goals on the feet and head of Allie Long and Mallory Pugh, respectively.
Yesterday in Chicago was even better. The Taegeuk Nangja went one step farther and held the World Champions to a 1-1 draw that included a bit of everything. There was flashy attacking play from players like Jang Selgi, Kang Chaerim, and Son Hwayeon. There was a masterful goal from Ji Soyun where she froze young defender Tierna Davidson and proceeded to meg her on the shot. There was some incredibly physical and no-nonsense defending from Cho Sohyun. Towards the end, there was even some incredible reflex saves from the newest Jo Hyeonwoo goalkeeper, Kim Minjung. At the end, the Korean women were ecstatic with their play and celebrating a hugely positive trip to the States. They were back.
We talk a lot about the gaps between the best and the rest in world football. When you are a fan of the Korea Republic national teams, regardless of gender, you are acutely aware that this gap is large. Yesterday felt like a moment where the Korean women had seen the gap and decided that it was nothing to be afraid of. Was Ji Soyun, a star in her own right at Chelsea WFC, afraid to drive at a defense of Sauerbrunn, Davidson, Dunn, and Short? No. Instead, she took down a perfectly weighted header from Son Hwayeon, froze Davidson, and buried a shot far corner, where Alyssa Naeher had no chance.
Was Cho Sohyun scared to get stuck in with world stars like Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle, and Carli Lloyd in midfield? No. Instead, she proceeded to tackle anyone who got in front of her and win the ball on multiple occasions. Was Kang Gaae, who played goal for the first 66 minutes, afraid of Rapinoe’s set piece delivery? No. She confidently punched them out of danger in traffic.
This was not the squad we saw in France that looked tentative and unsure in all the most crucial moments. Hwang Insun, who will stay on as the top assistant coach once a permanent head coach is found, had unleashed a squad of hungry young players with just the right mix of veteran stalwarts. It showed. They were ready for the moment in Chicago and the USWNT gave them huge respect after the match.
I talked with Becky Sauerbrunn after the match and she had high praise for the Korean women. I asked if she remembered the match in North Carolina two years ago with the Korean women and she said yes. Asked what was different, here was her answer:
I thought they were more competitive in general. Physically, they were more up for the fight. In individual battles they were willing to get into it. Sophistication-wise, they were further along than they were two years ago. They had good ideas, they were able to play out of pressure well, and then I think they had a killer instinct going forward, which was really good.
In the space of a couple training sessions before coming to the US, Hwang Insun had prepared her squad to go toe to toe with the World Champions and come out unscathed. It gave me a lot of pride to watch them play so well in this kind of match and I’m excited for what comes next.
What is next for the women? They will host the third round of AFC Olympics qualifying on Jeju-do in February 2020. The Taegeuk Nangja are aiming to qualify for their first ever Olympic Women’s football tournament and hoping to be one of two Asian sides to join hosts Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
We’ll be back with more Victory Tour coverage with a piece on the Korean squad featuring quotes from interim manager Hwang Insun, Ji Soyun, Cho Sohyun, Lim Seonjoo, Kim Minjung, Kang Gaae, and Jang Selgi.