Park Chu-young’s goal against Jeonbuk won FC Seoul the title on the final day of last season. They could’ve won the double, losing on penalties in the FA Cup final to Suwon Bluewings. Of course, a major factor in Seoul’s dramatic end to last season was the points deduction that Jeonbuk received, without which Seoul would have finished at least six points behind the ACL winners. Seoul won’t be able to rely on something similar happening this season, and will need to improve if they want to retain their title.
Improvement will be difficult without a regular goal-scorer. Unfortunately for Seoul fans, Adriano, who scored thirty-five goals in all competitions last season, has moved to Chinese side Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, and there are doubts as to whether his replacement Maurinho, who has joined Seoul from Jeonnam Dragons, will be able to provide the necessary firepower to propel Seoul to the title. Midfield maestro Yojiro Takahagi has also left the club, joining FC Tokyo, with former FC Seoul captain Ha Dae-sung moving the other way. Ha Dae-sung was instrumental in Seoul’s 2012 K-League title win, but the thirty-one year old struggled for playing time last season. FC Seoul have also brought in Lee Sang-ho from rivals Suwon Bluewings to help fill the Takahagi-shaped void in midfield.
With a poor pre-season, and a tough ACL group to negotiate, Seoul fans will be hoping that their side can find a way to win, having lost two of their better players.
Without a doubt the best side in the league over the past three years, they only missed out on the title last year due to being deducted points. They also managed to win the ultimate prize in Asian football, the AFC Champions’ League. The AFC, however, have banned Jeonbuk from attempting to defend their ACL crown due to the matchfixing scandal that cost them nine points, and ultimately their K-League title, last season.
With no Champions’ League football or long flights to Australia to distract them, Jeonbuk will be hoping for a strong start to the season. If their rivals struggle to balance ACL commitments with league football then it is possible that Jeonbuk could be out of sight by the summer. That said, they have lost some of their better players over the winter, most notably Leonardo, who has left for UAE side Al-Jazira, and goalkeeper Kwon Sun-tae, who has moved to Kashima Antlers. Leonardo’s transfer, combined with a long term injury to Ricardo Lopez, and an aging strikeforce of Lee Dong-gook and Edu, could have a detrimental effect in their ability to score goals this season. Their big signing this winter was Korean international Kim Jin-soo, who joined after finding playing opportunities limited at Hoffenheim. Brazilian midfielder Eder also joins the club from Daegu. More importantly, Jeonbuk have managed to keep hold of star midfielder Lee Jae-sung, who was reportedly attracting a lot of interest from overseas.
Without the Champions’ League to worry about, and with a strong and relatively stable squad, Jeonbuk are most people’s favourites for the title.
Last year was 2009 and 2010 all over again for Bluewings supporters. Just like in those two seasons, Suwon started the season disastrously, although unlike those two seasons they never quite hit rock-bottom, before recovering and somehow qualifying for the Asian Champions’ League after lifting the FA Cup. Suwon fans this year will be hoping for a repeat of their 2008 season, the last time that they won the league, instead.
After problems on and off the field last season, Suwon fans have lots to be optimistic about this year. They might have sold their up-and-coming talent Kwon Chang-hoon, but the players brought in suggest that Suwon aim to be back in the top three this season. Korean international Kim Min-woo, and Dynamo Zagreb midfielder Damir Sovsic give the team some more options in the center of the park, and target man Park Gi-dong joins from Jeonnam Dragons to help support Santos and Johnathan up-front. Australian defender Matthew Jurman, and Pohang goalkeeper Shin Hwa-yong look like great acquisitions at the back. No wonder that some Suwon fans are quietly whispering that this could be their year.
Who would be a football manager? Despite an impressive fourth-place finish last season, manager Yoon Jung-hwan still had to deal with fans protesting about how the team were playing. Little wonder then that he decided to join Cerezo Osaka instead of stick around at Ulsan. Former Incheon manager Kim Do-hoon takes the reins at Ulsan for this season, although judging by Incheon’s form under him last season, Ulsan fans have plenty of reason to be skeptical about his appointment. Despite a poor display against Kitchee in the ACL playoffs, Ulsan will get to play in the Asian Champions’ League this season.
Goalscoring was Ulsan’s problem last season; their forty-one goals scored was the second lowest in the division. Kim Do-hoon has attempted to remedy this problem by bringing in Mislav Orsic and Lee Jong-ho, who played well together in 2014 and 2015 for Jeonnam Dragons before moving to Changchun Yatai and Jeonbuk respectively. Ulsan have also strengthened their defense with the signing of Richard Windbichler from Austria Wien, and Kim Chang-soo from Jeonbuk, with Lee Yong moving in the other direction.
After finishing third last season, Jeju have managed to keep hold of most of their best players, notably midfielder Ahn Hyun-beom. The only notable departure was that of Lee Geun-ho to Gangwon. The signing of Cho Yong-hyung and return of Aleksandar Jovanic will strengthen their defence, and the addition of Frederik Mendy, who joins from Ulsan, will offer a physical threat up-front. However, with Champions’ League football to play, fatigue could become an issue for the islanders.
After a poor start to 2016, Jeonnam rallied and nearly earned themselves an ACL spot. They have managed to keep their young squad together with very little transfer activity over the winter. Park Gi-dong’s move to Suwon, and the acquisition of Hungarian forward Robert Feczesin, were Jeonnam’s only notable deals. Fans of the south-west club will be hoping that squad cohesion can give them a strong start to the 2017 campaign as they look for another top-half finish.
Last season’s relegation favorites surprised many pundits and were unlucky to miss out on a top-half finish, falling away to eighth by the end of the season. The biggest surprise was thirty-two year-old striker Jung Jo-gook who, despite never really being prolific in his career, somehow ended up as the K-League’s top goalscorer with twenty league goals last season. Perhaps less surprisingly, he left Gwangju in the winter, moving to big-spenders Gangwon FC. Gwangju will have to make do without him and many are predicting a relegation battle this time around.
The army side had a good season in 2016, and were in the top three towards the middle of the year, before falling to sixth by the end of the season. Some promising players have joined their ranks this year, with Suwon defender Hong Chul, and FC Seoul striker Jun Yu-tae among the recent conscripts.
With ten games to go, Incheon looked dead and buried, but a managerial change and end of season run allowed them to clinch safety with a win against Suwon FC on the final day of the season. With star players Matej Jonjic and Kevin Oris departing in the winter, Incheon fans may well be worried that they might not escape the drop this time around. Bosnian Gordan Bunoza, and Australian Connor Chapman have been brought in to try and bolster the defense. Moon Seon-min, who has spent his career so far in Sweden, joins from Djurgarden, while Oris’ physical role will be taken by Dalibor Veselinovic, who joins from Belgian side Mechelen.
Pohang found themselves in real trouble last season, and only a final day victory over Seongnam saw them retain their K-League Classic status. With good goalkeepers being a precious commodity in the K-League, fans will be disappointed to see Shin Hwa-yong depart for Suwon, another notable departure is midfielder Shin Kwang-hoon, who joins FC Seoul. Swedish defender Marcus Nilsson, who spent the 2015/16 season at Fleetwood Town, joined Pohang from Norwegian side Stabaek. Cho Min-woo also joins Pohang from V-Varen Nagaksaki to help strengthen the defense, and former Jeonnam midfielder Lee Seung-hee has made the move to the east coast from Nagoya Grampus.
Newly-promoted Gangwon FC have decided to play their 2017 games at the Pyeongchang Olympic ski-jump arena, and are charging fans the highest prices in the league to witness this. Fans willing to trek deep into the mountains and fork out the big bucks can expect to see a side that the club’s owners claim can challenge for an ACL spot. Big money signings include Lee Geun-ho, Oh Beom-seok, and last season’s top scorer Jung Jo-gook. They have also brought in Cypriot defender Valentinos Sielos, and Incheon’s Vietnamese midfielder Luong Xuan Truong among others. If Gangwon can get all of these new acquisitions to gel, then a top-half finish may well be on the cards.
After earning automatic promotion by default after the league leaders Ansan Mugunghwa moved to Asan, Daegu haven’t made any real signings that suggest that they can compete at a higher level. The sale of Johnathan midway through last season, and Eder this winter, definitely doesn’t bode well for Daegu. 2017 looks like it could be a tough season for Daegu supporters.