K League 2019 Season Preview

Korean K League 2019 Season Preview

Korean K League 2019 Season Preview

Korean K League 2019 Season Preview

While not as old as in Europe, football in Korea has a long and rich history, with its beginnings dating back to 1900s, more specifically back to 1905, when the first official public match was played. This sparked a lot of interest as only a few years later, there was a “boom” of new clubs and with that rivalries started to form. Most notably the rivalry between clubs in Seoul and Pyongyang which still exist. Fast forward to 1921 and the first nationwide competition was held. Its name was the All Joeson Football Tournament. If you want to know who was the champion of the 1st ever tournament, I will have to disappoint you, as there was none. All Joeson Football Tournament was cut short due to complaints about referees, who supposedly did not do their job good enough. An interesting fact about the tournament is that it took place during the Japanese occupation of Korea. And while it may not sound like a big deal the tournament helped, it did revive some national consciousness. This is a clear example of the saying “football brings us together”, which it did for Koreans. As a Japanese colony, Korean teams were also allowed to play in Japan’s FA Cup. In 1935 we saw the first non-Japan team winning the cup, and their name was Kyungsung FC.

The football popularity in Korea grew with each year, and with that, it should not come off as a surprise that Korea established their first football league in 1964; named the Korean National Semi-Professional Football League, which now represents the 3rd tier of the league. At that time, many of the teams playing in the league were so-called work-teams, which meant they played under the name of the company that employed them. This can still be noticed in names of some teams, however, most of them renamed themselves later on.

We will again fast forward to 1983, which was the biggest year for Korean football, as it was the year when we saw the rise of Korean Super League, now known as K league. Back in 1983, the Korean Super League had only 5 member clubs, but it continued to grow in size and popularity, slowly but surely. Approximately 15 years later the league was reformed once again and renamed to K League, which is the name we know today. As a part of the reform, it was split into 2 leagues; K League Classic and K League Challenge. Since the creation of the league in 1983, it has grown from only 5 teams to 22 teams, 12 of which are in the first tier (K1) and 10 are in the 2nd tier (K2). Out of the inaugural 5 teams, there are only 3 left that compete in the league. Those are Jeju United FC, Pohang Steelers and Busan IPark. While we have 22 teams in K1 and K2 league, the Korean football league pyramid is much deeper. In total it has 7 divisions, with 1239 teams. K1 and K2 are pro leagues, National League, K3 League Advanced and K3 League Basic are semi-pro and the last 3 divisions are regional leagues. Despite a huge number of leagues, we will only focus on the 1st tier of Korean football; the Korean League 1 or K1 league. In this article, we will check the teams that will appear in 2019 season of K1 league, how they performed last season and what do we expect from them in the next season.



Daegu FC

Established in 2002, Daegu FC have been a part of K1 League since 2002. After finishing 13th in 2013, Daegu FC have been demoted to K2 league where they remained for 3 seasons until they finally got back to the K1 league in 2017. In the history of competing in K league, Daegu FC best finish was the 7th spot. As for silverware, Daegu FC has only 1 FA Cup which they surprisingly managed to win last season.


2018 Season: 7th; 14-8-16; 47:56

A poor start from Daegu FC last season, which saw them sitting in the relegation zone for half the season turned into an impressive run which catapulted them to 7th spot in the league. That, in the end, proved to be their best result in the history of the club. In addition, Daegu FC lifted their 1st trophy in their history, when they won the FA Cup after defeating Ulsan Hyundai 3:0 in the finals. With the FA Cup title, Daegu FC will get to compete in the Champions League next season, which might prove to be a double-edged sword. Last season was without a doubt the most successful season Daegu FC has ever had and a season they will have a hard time repeating.


Expectations for the 2019 season

The expectations for Daegu FC are high after a historic 2018 season and a brand-new stadium, the DGB Daegu Bank Park. For the last 2 seasons Daegu FC had a terrible start of the season but somehow managed to improve in the summer. Last season their sudden improvement in summer was really impressive, and I believe if the league would have lasted a few more rounds, Daegu FC would eventually finish in the top 3. While this is hypothetical, it does show how good can Daegu FC be. With the AFC competition in 2019, we must ask ourselves, how much will it affect the team. The answer is; a lot. Being placed in Group H, with Melbourne Victory, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Guangzhou Evergrande, Daegu FC will have a lot of travelling to do. This will result in hellish first 3 months for this team. If Daegu FC can approach their first 3 months appropriately, they should have yet another great season. If not, they will have to once again catch up to other teams in the summer.



Gangwon FC

Established in 2008, Gangwon FC first appeared in the K1 league in 2009 season, when they finished 13th. For the next few years, Gangwon FC have been hovering at the bottom of the K1 table until they got relegated into K2 league in 2013 where they remained for 3 years. In 2016 Gangwon FC managed to climb back to the K1, where they will appear for the 3rd year in a row next season. In the history of the club, Gangwon FC never won the league, nor have they lifted any trophies. Their best finish in K1 eas 6th place in 2017.


2018 Season: 8th; 12-10-16; 56:60

Last season Gangwon FC finished 8th which was their 2nd best result in K1 league, with a 6th place finish in the 2017 season being the highest they have ever been in this competition. Not much was expected from Gangwon FC, however, they have impressed with a good start of the season, which soon took a turn and became a disappointing season, mostly due to poor defence of Gangwon FC which conceded goals left and right. Looking at the whole season, Gangwon FC were hovering around 8th place for most of the season until they finally landed there at the season’s end. While they had some issues in the beck, Gangwon FC was extremely strong in the offence. Thanks to their star striker Uroš Đerić, Gangwon FC finished as the 4th best goal scorers in the league. Despite their best efforts in the attack, their defence was seemingly non-existent with 60 conceded goals.


Expectations for the 2019 season

Gangwon FC had a terrible last season, mostly due to their disastrous defence, but to be fair, it was not all the defense’s fault. While they did concede 60 goals, Gangwon FC defence was 2nd best in the league in clearances, 3rd best in successful challenges and 5th best in interceptions. When presented with those numbers, I guess we can all agree the defence did their job. So where was the problem? Looking closer. it’s quite clear that their biggest issue was controlling the flow of the game, mostly due to a subpar midfield. And with no strong players in the midfield and poor flow, it’s only natural the defence were constantly under pressure, so we can’t really say they did a bad job. With new additions in the midfield, which should reduce some pressure put on the backline, I believe Gangwon FC can perform much better in 2019. That is IF the new players can prove themselves.



Gyeongnam FC

Established in 2006, Gyeongnam FC have had their ups and downs in their history. Gyeongnam FC arrived into K1 league in 2006 season and remained at the top division until 2014 when the 11th place finish saw them dropping to K2 league once again. Gyeongnam FC remained in K2 until 2017, when they finished 1st and got promoted back into the 1st division. When the team returned to the K1 League in 2018, they surprisingly finished 2nd in the league, which is also their best finish in 10 years of competing in K1. As of now, Gyeongnam FC has not yet won any silverware, however, they have finished as runners-up in the FA Cup twice (2008 and 2012).


2018 Season: 2nd; 18-11-9; 59:44

After finishing 1st in K2 league in 2017, no one expected much from Gyeongnam FC in the 2018 season of K1 league, however, they have proven to be the biggest surprise of the season. They started off the season surprisingly well, holding onto the 2nd place for most of the season, and while they were unable to catch up to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, there was only one team in the league who really managed to threaten to take Gyeongnam FC 2nd place and they were Ulsan Hyundai. With only 3 games left in the season, Gyeongnam FC were 3rd, while Ulsan Hyundai were second, however, Gyeongnam FC managed to catch up and pass their opponents on the leaderboards, finishing 2 points above Ulsan Hyundai and securing the best K1 league placement in their history with a spectacular finish of the season.


Expectations for the 2019 season

With a phenomenal season behind them, Gyeongnam FC are suddenly a team everyone seems to notice. Despite being a small team with no real history, they are suddenly popular and well it’s only fair they are popular after the last season. But one season does not make you a big club yet. If Gyeongnam FC wants to establish themselves as a top dog in Korea, there is a lot of work to be done ahead of them. As they look to build on their successful 2018 season, Gyeongnam FC has brought in some new faces to freshen up the squad. Two additions that stand out are Jordon Mutch, the midfielder from Crystal Palace and a well-known Korean player Lee Kwang-seon, who will strengthen the defence of Gyeongnam FC. What is concerning is that Marcão, who as the top league scorer last season (26 goals) left Gyeongnam FC and went to China. This will leave a huge gap in the Gyeongnam attacking line. They, however, brought in Luc Castaignos as his replacement. If their attack can remain at least nearly as strong as it was last season, I believe Gyeongnam FC will finish among the top 5, otherwise, the bottom half of the table is where they will end.



Incheon United FC

Established in 2013, Incheon United FC have been a part of K1 league since 2004 and are among rare few teams that have not yet been demoted to the 2nd division; K2. In the 15 years of competing in the K1 league, Incheon United FC have never won the league. Their best result being the 2nd place finish in 2005, while their best result in the FA Cup is runners-up in 2015.


2018 Season: 9th; 10-12-16; 55:69

The 2018 season was ok for Incheon United FC, who finished 9th for the 2nd season in a row. In fact, Incheon United FC have been finishing around 10th for the last 7 seasons, so a 9th place finish did not come off as a huge surprise. Despite their finish not being exactly impressive, Incheon United FC have had a season finish to remember and I mean that in a good way. Incheon United FC were sitting in the relegation zone with only 4 more rounds to go, but then something clicked and they managed to win all of the last 4 games, which not only saved them from the relegation but also got them to the 9th spot finish. If we draw a line the season was “ok” with some bright points for Incheon United FC which could point to a better future for this club.


Expectations for the 2019 season

As mentioned, Incheon United FC are accustomed to a bottom table finish, but sooner or later they might slip and fall into the relegation zone. That almost happened in the 2018 season, but due to a strong finish of the season, Incheon United FC were safe once more. As for their squad, Incheon United FC managed to hold on to most of their core. All of the departures have been replaced with solid replacements, so the team is looking equally strong coming into 2019. If Incheon United FC can improve their defence next season, I believe a top 6 finish is almost guaranteed, however, it is all “if they improve”, which I am not too convinced they will. As for the predicted finish, they could finish higher up as they did last season, however, it will all come down to how well will they use their potential.



Jeju United FC

One of the oldest clubs in K1 league, Jeju United FC was founded in 1982 as Yukong FC. They have been a part of K1 (formerly known as Korean Super League) since 1983, which was the inaugural season of the league. In the long history, Jeju United FC have managed to finish 1st in the league only once (1989) but managed to finish as runners-up 5 times. As for their performances in the FA Cup, Jeju United FC have finished 2nd in 2004, which is also their best result. In addition, Jeju United FC were 3 times champions of League Cup which was abolished in 2012.


2018 Season: 5th; 14-12-12; 41:41

After a rough start of the season, Jeju United FC managed to climb to the top 3, where they remained for several rounds, until the 17th round. After that, Jeju United FC fell to 8th spot and never managed to recover and climb back up the ladder. Jeju United FC still managed to perform well in the last rounds, climbing to the 5th spot in the league, where they concluded the season. All in all, they had a pretty mediocre season, nothing more to say.


Expectations for the 2019 season

Jeju United FC struggled with goals last season, scoring only 41, which was the 2nd least in the league, only scoring more than FC Seoul with 40goals. On the bright side, 41 goals conceded is the best record in the league. What they need is a good attacking player, capable of scoring goals and maybe a midfielder who would feed the attackers. And what did Jeju United FC do? They have brought in Elias Aguilar, who was the best midfielder last season and a part of the K League 1 Best IX alongside with Jung Woo-jae who will add additional support in the midfield.



Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC

Known as Chonbuk Dinos in 1994, when the team was founded, they renamed themselves to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, when Hyundai Motors took over Jeonbuk Buffalos. Because of the takeover, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC history and results count from December 1994. Nonetheless, the team has achieved impressive results in their history. Since 1994 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC finished as the league champions 6 times (2 times runners-up), won the FA Cup 3 times (2 times runners-up) and won the AFC Champions League 2 times (once runners-up). As it stands now, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC are among 4 South Korean teams that won the AFC CL more than once.


2018 Season: 1st; 26-8-4; 75:31

By far the best team in the last season and deservingly the champions of K1 League. Only 6 rounds into the league Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC got to the 1st place and held on to it for all the remainder of the season. With 75 goals in 38 games played and only 31 conceded, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC were unstoppable for the 2nd season in a row and it seemed like they are playing in a different league. Despite a phenomenal result in the league, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC got knocked out of the FA Cup and AFC Champions League. The minimum was achieved; however, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC were expected to achieve more last season.


Expectations for the 2019 season

With 2 impressive seasons behind them, I find it hard to believe any team can stand up to them. Not only have Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC won the league 2 times, but they also won it with style. Let me remind you, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC won the league with a 21-point lead in front of 2nd placed Gyeongnam FC. The upcoming season should be no different for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, that is why I believe they will finish strong once more.



Pohang Steelers

Founded in 1973, as the Pohang Steelworks FC, the Pohang Steelers is one of the most successful Korean teams. Since 1983, when they first appeared in the Korean Super League, Pohang Steelers have won the league 5 times (4 times runners-up), won the FA Cup 4 times (3 times runners-up) and won the League Cup 2 times (2 times runners-up). Pohang Steelers are also the most successful AFC Champions League team in the world, with 3 titles achieved in 1997, 1998 and 2009.


2018 Season: 4th; 15-9-14; 47:48

After finishing 9th in 2016 and 7th in 2017, Pohang Steelers managed to climb to the 4th spot last season. An improvement, but still far from their former glory. With 54 points accumulated throughout the season, Pohang Steelers were 9 short of reaching the top 3, which would be a great result for them as they could once more compete in AFC. Sadly, they were unable to catch up to the race between Gyeongnam FC and Ulsan Hyundai who were fighting for the 2nd and 3rd spot. To be fair the 4th spot finish is a great achievement, especially if we consider Pohang Steelers could have easily ended up 5th, due to +1 goal difference compared to Jeju United (who had just as many points). Nonetheless, Pohang Steelers were placed above them.


Expectations for the 2019 season

A 9th, 7th and 4th finishes in the last 3 last seasons points out clearly that Pohang Steelers are improving. In the next season, I see Suwon Bluewings, Pohang Steelers and FC Seoul fighting for the 4th-6th spot, with the top 3 being “reserved” for Jeonbuk, Ulsan and Jeju. Taking into consideration all the changes in Pohang Steelers and their performances last season, I believe Pohang Steelers can finish at least 5th if their players can stay healthy.



Sangju Sangmu FC

Founded in 1984, Sangju Sangmu FC is a club with an interesting rule. Its playing staff is made up of young South Korean professional footballers, who are serving the 2-year military duty. At the start of the season, 15 players join and remain in the club for 2 years before they return to their former clubs. Because of its military status, the club is not allowed to sign any foreigners. In the history of the club, they have never won any silverware with an exception of 2 semi-professional championships. Sangju Sangmu FC have arrived in the K1 league in 2003 where they remained until 2013 when they got demoted to K2 for a season. 2 years later Sangju Sangmu FC once again visited K2, and once again managed to climb out of it in the next season. The best result in K1 league was 6th place in 2016.


2018 Season: 10th; 10-10-18; 41:52

After finishing 2017 season in the relegation zone and eventually winning the playoffs, Sangju Sangmu FC managed to remain in the K1 league for another season. The next season, the 2018 season was more or less the same, as they finished with just as many points as the 11th team, however, due to a slightly better goal difference, Sangju Sangmu FC once again saved themselves from relegation. Looking at the 2018 season as a whole, Sangju Sangmu FC started off the season decently, even climbing to the 4th spot, but eventually settled to stay around 9th spot for most of the season. Towards the end of the season, Sangju Sangmu FC dropped to 10th and even to 11th spot in the 37th round of the league. With only 1 more game to go, Sangju Sangmu FC managed to win against FC Seoul (1:0) which got them back to the 10th spot and with that, they will once again play in the K1 league in 2019.


Expectations for the 2019 season

This is one of the teams that there are simply not expectations. It’s a team that has no foundation, no future, and no way of improving. Their performances come down which players join them for the next 2 year. As long as Sangju Sangmu FC remain in the K1, they will have to fight for survival and I do not expect anything more from them in 2019. If I had to give my prediction, Sangju Sangmu FC will finish in the relegation zone.



Seongnam FC

Founded in 1989 as Ilhwa Chunma, Seongnam FC is the most successful South Korean Club in history. Since their first appearance in the K league, Seongnam FC have won the league a record 7 times. In addition, they have won the FA Cup 3 times (3 times runners-up) and won the AFC Champions League 2 times (2 times runners-up). Despite being the best Korean team, Seongnam FC have been demoted to K2 in 2016, where they remained until 2018 when they finished 2nd and once again returned to K1.


2018 Season: 2nd; 18-11-7; 49:36 (K league 2)

After failing to be promoted back to K1 in 2017, Seongnam FC started off the 2018 season in the best possible way. They have had an impressive run of 12 unbeaten games (8-4-0). After that, they cooled off a bit, which saw them drop to the 2nd spot, where they remained for the rest of the season. Despite finishing 2nd, which would mean Seongnam FC would need to go into playoffs to earn their spot in the K1 league, they were directly promoted into the K1 because the K2 champions Asan Mugunghwa failed to recruit new players until November 19th. Due to their failed recruitment, Asan Mugunghwa were unable to advance and will once again compete in the K2 league


Expectations for the 2019 season

Much of their success last season was due to their impressive start of the season with 12 straight unbeaten games. However, in the remaining 23 games, Seongnam FC cooled down. T put it into a perspective, Seongnam FC have scored 24 goals in the first 13 games, but only managed to score 25 in the remaining 23. They still manage to finish as the 4th best goalscorers of the K2 league, trailing the league leaders by 5 goals. As for the next season, Seongnam FC have added some new legs to the squad, however, I am a bit sceptical how well will they perform against K1 teams after their poor 2nd half of K2 league. It’s hard to expect anything more than a bottom table finish for the newly promoted side.



FC Seoul

Founded as Lucky-Goldstar Football Club in 1983, FC Seoul is among the most successful Korean teams. Since first appearing in the K League, FC Seoul have won the league 6 times, won 3 FA Cups (2 times runners-up) and won 2 League Cups. They are also among rare teams that have never been demoted to the 2nd division. Despite their impressive history, FC Seoul have not been performing well in recent years. Ever since they won the league in 2016, FC Seoul have failed to finish in the top 3. In 2017 FC Seoul finished 5th, and they only managed to finish 11th last season.


2018 Season: 11th; 9-13-16; 40:48

A season to forget for FC Seoul. The 11th place finish they managed to achieve last season was the worst placement in the club’s history. With only 40 points accumulated throughout the season, they were tied with Sangju Sangmu, but due to worse goal difference, FC Seoul were ultimately forced to fight for survival, while Sangju Sangmu stayed safe. In the playoffs, they faced off against Busan IPark, who FC Seoul managed to easily defeat with the aggregate score showing 2:4. In their defence for the bad season, it’s hard to expect much from a club that had 3 different managers in charge in a single season, in addition to selling a few of their key players, thus making the team weaker.


Expectations for the 2019 season

With such a disappointing season behind them, there is only one way for FC Seoul, and that is up. While we cannot expect much from the club that finished 11th last season, the fans still expect at least a top 5 finish, which they came accustomed to throughout the years. A lot of hopes have been put into the new manager Choi Yongsoo, who is expected to bring FC Seoul back on the road to success. If FC Seoul can start off the season well, I see no reason why they shouldn’t finish in the top 5, but with a lot of expectations for them to perform well, FC Seoul and Choi Yongsoo could break under pressure.



Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Established in 1995, Suwon Samsung Bluewings have become one of Asia most famous football clubs with numerous domestic and continental honours. Since Suwon Samsung Bluewings arrived in the K League, they have won the league 4 times, won the League Cup 6 times, got 4 FA Cup titles (3 times runners-up), win the Super Cup 3 times, and won 3 AFC titles. The last time Suwon Samsung Bluewings were close to winning the league was in 2014 and 2015 when they finished 2nd, however, since then the team failed to perform as expected.


2018 Season: 6th; 13-11-14; 53:54

Suwon Samsung Bluewings managed to finish last season at a 6th place, which was below the expectations. In addition, they only managed to gather 50 points, which meant they ended the season with one of the worst points totals in their history. Despite a disastrous run in the league, Suwon Samsung Bluewings have had the best run in the AFC since 2005, when they won it. In 2018, Suwon Samsung Bluewings managed to reach the semi-finals in AFC, where they got defeated by Kashima Antlers (6:5) who then went on to the finals and ultimately won the competition. If we draw a line, the last season was a rollercoaster for Suwon Samsung Bluewings with good and bad results.


Expectations for the 2019 season

As mentioned before, Suwon Bluewings alongside Pohang Steelers and FC Seoul are teams who I believe will fight for a 4th-6th spot in the league. Despite the recent drop in form, Suwon Samsung Bluewings are still a team that is capable of finishing near the top 3. They are expected to finish high enough to get into the AFC for 2020. And while this will not be easily achieved, it’s not impossible.



Ulsan Hyundai FC

Owned by Hyundai Heavy Industries, Ulsan Hyundai FC was established in 1983 as Hyundai Horang-i. A year later they joined the K League, and they compete in the 1st division ever since. In the history of the club, Ulsan Hyundai FC won the league two times (8 times runners-up), won the FA Cup once (two times runners-up) and won the AFC Champions League once.
In 2006, Ulsan Hyundai FC also won the Super Cup which was the last time the competition was held, until it was dropped the next year.


2018 Season: 3rd; 17-12-9; 61:46

After a terrible start of the season, which saw Ulsan Hyundai FC in the relegation zone for the first 5 rounds, Ulsan Hyundai FC woke up and climbed the league ladder, until they reached the 3rd spot in the 24th round. With only 3 more rounds to go Ulsan Hyundai FC were 2nd in the league but lost their spot to Gyeongnam FC. In addition to a great run in the league, Ulsan Hyundai FC also managed to get to the finals of the FA Cup, however, Daegu FC stopped them from winning it for the 2nd time in a row.


Expectations for the 2019 season

During the transfer window, Ulsan Hyundai FC were among the most active teams, bringing in reinforcements, while keeping their core players. With the arrival of Dave Bulthuis from SC Heerenveen and un Young-sun from Seongnam, Ulsan Hyundai FC defence looks solid. And while those 2 additions are a big improvement for the Ulsan Hyundai FC squad, the most stand-out signing is without a doubt the former Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-young, who has joined Ulsan on a loan. For the last 3 seasons, Ulsan Hyundai FC managed to finish in the top 4 and with the same core with some good additions, I am sure they will once more end there. In fact, I would not be surprised if Ulsan Hyundai FC manages to finish even higher this season.