In the early going of the 2013 season of the K League Classic, a team once considered a heavy underdog has charged up to first place, while the defending champion, a constant serious title contender, has yet to win a game, all part of an unexpected tale of mixed fortunes.
The Pohang Steelers have taken the lead three matches into the new season in South Korea’s first-division football league. Pohang is one of three undefeated teams so far with two wins and a draw and has taken first place thanks to its advantage in goal difference. Pohang has netted a league-high seven goals and has only allowed two. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Incheon United also have two wins and a tie apiece, but their goal differences both lie at plus-3.
On the flip side, FC Seoul is stuck in 11th place with a draw and two losses. It won the 2012 championship without losing back-to-back games the whole season, but has dropped its past two consecutive games, first against Incheon and then to Busan IPark.
|Players of the Pohang Steelers celebrate their victory against Suwon Samsung during the 2013 Hyundai Oilbank K League Classic on Sunday. (Yonhap News)|
Pohang has been the rarest of the breed: It is the only K League Classic team without a foreign player. Teams can sign up to four players born outside South Korea, and most of them rely heavily on their imported strikers for their offensive production.
Pohang was met with plenty of skepticism when it declared it would play this season with a lineup entirely consisting of local players. Head coach Hwang Sun-hong repeatedly said he would rather not spend a large chunk of the team’s payroll on a few foreign stars and miss the opportunity to nurture homegrown talent. He also said his club wasn’t going to depend on a couple of stars. Pohang was going to have the best chemistry and cohesion in the league, he said.
Hwang even predicted that Pohang would sweep up the K League Classic championship, the FA Cup, and the AFC Champions League, the premier club tournament in Asia. He may have been a tad too optimistic, but at least Pohang is off to a stronger-than-expected start.
Pohang has scored at least two goals in each of its first three domestic matches. It has two draws in two games at the AFC Champions League, one of which came on the road against Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan, with Hwang deploying mostly reserve-squad players.
Pohang has been able to solve opposing defenses with short, quick passes. The young, speedy team, with an average age of 25, has also played a fast-paced transition game.
Hwang recently said winning championships is secondary to an even bigger purpose.
“Winning titles is important, but what’s more so is to execute our game plans and to play the kind of football that we want to play,” he said. “When we decided not to sign any foreign players, the goal was to solidify the team’s foundation for the future. We’ve stopped listening to skeptics and doubters and we’re just out there to execute our plans.”
Executing plans is what FC Seoul hasn’t been able to do so far this season. It was held to a 2-2 draw by Pohang in the season opener, and then lost to Incheon 3-2 and to Busan 1-0.
FC Seoul finds itself in an unfamiliar position ― just fourth from the league cellar. Head coach Choi Yong-soo said his players have found the role of “the chased” difficult to handle.
FC Seoul has retained the core of its 2012 championship team.
Striker Dejan Damjanovic, who last year set the single season record with 31 goals, and his sidekick Mauricio Molina, who established the new league standard with 19 assists in 2012, are back on the front line of the team’s offense.
For opposing teams, though, familiarity may have bred contempt.
They have played it rough against Seoul, as Pohang and Incheon each drew four yellow cards against the defending champion and Busan got six yellow cards last Sunday.
The fact that its opponents saw most of the same players last year also helped them contain the juggernauts so far.
Choi, the head coach, said his players may have lost their composure in the face of physical play. The K League Classic is off until March 30, with the South Korean national team playing in a World Cup qualifier next week, and Choi said he will use the downtime to regroup.
“We’re going to start from scratch,” he said. “We will take it step by step, one game at a time.” (Yonhap News)