With K-League fixtures about to head to evening kick-offs to avoid the sweltering heat, the two sides expected to be battling it out at the top are doing just that. While title holders Jeonbuk Hyundai’s close-season transfer splurge meant it was almost inevitable that the Mad Green Boys would be near the top, success for FC Seoul was predicted with the typical proviso that the team shake off its usual sluggish start while still managing to juggle Asian Champions League (ACL) commitments. Shrugging off an opening 1-0 away loss to the defending champions, the capital club went on an undefeated streak that was only ended in early May by bogey club Pohang, while a successful Champions League campaign saw Seoul finish top of its group and secure a knock-out round fixture against Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds. Any ACL side which can boast the goal-poaching talents of Adriano – 10 goals in 6 matches – was always likely to go far. Also at the top of the scoring charts domestically, keeping him fit will be paramount for any Seoul success this season.
Perhaps a little more surprising was the early season success of Seongnam FC, a club which has struggled to live up to previous successes after no longer being bank-rolled by the Unification Church. Bought by the local government in 2014, Seongnam has surprised many by combining secure defensive organisation (up until a 2-3 defeat at the hands of FC Seoul) with the goal scoring of Brazilian Tiago Alvez and occasionally-maligned targetman Ui-jo Hwang. Hwang’s record of a goal every other game last season is being kept up thus far, and a continuation of this might just see Seongnam replace Suwon Bluewings as top dog in the south of the city, even if that success is somewhat mitigated by Suwon’s financial situation as much as by Seongnam’s success. The Bluewings, with questions over their continued tenancy of the Suwon World Cup Stadium a harbinger of other financial (sponsor-related) woes, has stuttered badly in early season with a spate of draws seeing Jung-won Seo’s charges well off the early pace. Failure to get things right soon might see Seo lose his job, particularly given Suwon’s failure to advance from the group stages of the ACL. And no; a victory in the first Suwon derby secured by a late own-goal won’t keep the critics at bay.
At the bottom of the table, it won’t come as too great a surprise to see new-boys Suwon FC already thinking about a relegation battle. That said, a number of creditable performances for the minnows have seen them just outside the relegation spots and not much worse off than their more illustrious cross-town neighbors. Jeonnam Dragons’ one win in ten early doors combined with Incheon FC’s early season travails saw nothing in the wins column and the two established K-Classic clubs face the very real prospect of dropping into the lower tier. These clubs might well pine for the days when the lower tier was barely a glint in an ambitious K-League official’s eye, with relative giants of the league such as Busan (a four-time K-League winner), Daegu and Daejeon having suffered relegation in recent seasons.
The K-Challenge division has seen a lot of citizen clubs developing both on and off the pitch; a great sign of development for the sport on the peninsula in general, but also a sign that so-called bigger clubs cannot guarantee a swift return to the top flight after a season of mis-management. This season has been very tight, with no side setting the pace consistently. Even Seoul Eland, with its relative wealth, ex-internationals and overseas coaching staff, has struggled to live up to its early season promise. In only its second competitive season, the club has solved its tendency to concede an alarming number of goals but are finding hitting the back of the net an unexpected conundrum for a Martin Rennie side. Lucky Eland fans have delicious craft beer to console themselves with then. But having a competitive second tier is essential for the sport’s development on the peninsula, and K-League chiefs will no doubt have considered the J-League’s now three-tier structure (the bottom division of which does include some major clubs’ under-23 sides) as a model, if not to emulate, at least to move towards. And for giants stuck in the lower divisions, things can’t get much better/worse than former J-League behemoth Tokyo Verdy – almost ten seasons in the J-League lower tier and now in real danger of dropping to tier three. Busan be warned.
While the Taeguk Warriors will face Spain and the Czech Republic in early June as the European nations tune up for the revamped (and bloated) 24-country European Championships, a lack of international training camps or scheduling means that clubs will play on without the significant worry of having to play weakened teams due to the Korean national team’s overseas exploits. With a championship race unlikely to degenerate into last year’s procession, K-League football lasts all summer long. Grab a ticket, buy a cold beer and maybe even some tteokbokki. It’s going to be a nail-biter.
FC Seoul home fixtures:
June 15 vs. Gwangju with a 7.30pm kick-off
June 29 vs. Seongnam with a 7.30pm kick-off
Seoul Eland home fixtures:
June 1 vs. Gyeongnam with an 8pm kick-off
June 19 vs. Anyang with a 6pm kick-off
June 25 vs. Busan with a 6pm kick-off
June 29 vs. Gangwon with a 7pm kick-off