When, in the 43rd minute, Yoon Sung-yeol’s low shot swerved past Suwon’s keeper and in off the post, the few Seoul Eland fans who had braved the freezing November sleet caught a glimpse of the promised land: promotion to Korea’s top-flight. It was not to be. Suwon FC found an equalizer with the last kick of the first half, and a goal for either side in the second half meant that the match finished 3-3. With a draw not enough due to the vagaries of the league’s playoff format, the result meant that Seoul Eland were knocked out of the playoffs. Suwon FC, after beating Daegu and Busan, would join its more illustrious neighbors, Suwon Bluewings, in the K-League Classic. Seoul Eland would spend another season in Korean football’s second tier.
To come so close to promotion in the first season of the club’s existence might seem like an achievement in itself. Glass-half-empty types, however, are bound to point out that, with the highest wage bill in the second tier, more should have been expected of Martin Rennie’s charges. Many pundits pointed to the club’s poor defensive record – the 58 goals they conceded the third highest in the league – as the primary reason for not gaining promotion, although league champions Sangmu Sangju had only conceded one fewer than Eland over the course of the season. While Eland want to keep up their thrilling brand of attacking football – manager Martin Rennie claims that his team is “probably the most exciting in Asia” – improving their defense has been its priority this winter.
With that in mind, most of Eland’s incoming players this year have been brought in to bolster its back line. The signing of Kim Dong-chul from Jeonnam Dragons is quite a coup for the club, as is Lee Kyu-ro, who joins the Seoul Eland defence from K-League champions Jeonbuk Motors. Trinidad and Tobago international Carlyle Mitchell is likely to be partnered with new arrival Kim Dong-jin in the center of defense, despite the veteran Korean spending the early part of his career as a full back. Rennie has described the former Korean international as “the Korean Maldini,” and his experience is sure to benefit the younger players in the Eland squad. As Martin Rennie likes to test players in different positions, all three of these new signings may well be seen in different places along the back-line.
Up front, last season’s star players Joo Min-kyu and Tarabai will be looking to continue where they left off; the pair managed 40 league goals between them in 2015. They are joined in attack by Brazilian Jonatas Belusso, who scored 15 goals for Gangwon FC, giving Eland possibly the most potent strike force in the league. Also looking to break into the forward line is young striker Cho Woo-jin, who impressed last season at Ulsan Mipo Dolphins, and will be hoping to carry his goal-scoring form over to Seoul Eland this season. With such strong striking options, and with no plans to change their attacking style, visitors to Leoul Park should expect to see plenty of goals this season.
A number of players have seen the exit door too, including first teamers Robert Cullen, Cho Won-hee, and Hwang Do-yeon, with the latter returning to Jeju United after his loan ended. Cho Won-hee’s move in particular may surprise fans as the midfielder made the step up to K-League runners-up Suwon Bluewings. Another key departure is that of coach Kim Hee-ho, who left the club to become the assistant manager of rivals Busan. His replacement, In Chang-soo, won the K3, Korea’s fourth tier whilst managing Pocheon FC last season.
Fans will be hoping that these large scale changes in personnel mean that the team has learned from the mistakes made during the previous campaign. Seoul Eland will be expecting to improve on its fourth place finish, but despite all of the changes in personnel, promotion will be tough this year. After getting relegated last season, Busan and Daejeon have both revamped their squads, and will be looking to return to the K-League Classic at the first time of asking. Busan have managed to bring in former Gyeongnam striker Milos Stojanovic along with Ko Min-kyung, who scored 16 league goals for Anyang FC last season. Daejeon managed to pull off quite a coup by signing Suwon Bluewings target Kim Dong-chan from Jeonbuk Motors. They have also bolstered their defence, bringing in former Malaga defender Alvaro Silva and Romanian defender Jean-Claude Bozga. Daegu, who missed out on promotion by the narrowest of margins last season, will also be in the mix. They finished last season level on both points and goal difference with Sangmu Sangju, who were promoted ahead of them based on goals scored. Daegu were then narrowly beaten by Suwon FC in the play-offs. Those three sides plus Seoul Eland will make it one of the most exciting Tier 2 seasons ever.
Seoul Eland’s poor start to the last campaign ultimately cost the club as, even after their great run towards the end of spring, it was unable to make top spot its own. With a settled team and some good acquisitions, Seoul Eland will be hoping to go one better than last season and earn promotion at second time around.
Seoul Eland hosts Chungu Hummel at Jamsil Olympic Stadium on March 27 with a 2pm kick-off.
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Website (Korean only): http://www.seoulelandfc.com/