South Korea K League 1 season preview 2020

Will Ulsan Hyundai revenge their bitter league championship defeat to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors? Who will challenge the duo, and who will be relegated?

The K League returns on May 8th, about two months later than normal due to the corona virus pandemic. Still, it’s back, and right now that’s all we care about!

The 2020 season format

Because of the delayed kickoff the season format is somewhat changed. The 2020 season will be played over 27 rounds. The twelve teams will meet each other home and away like usual; that’s 22 rounds (normally they would face each other three times for 33 rounds). The remaining five rounds is divided into a championship round (the top six teams play each other) and a relegation round (the bottom six teams play each other), another five rounds.

After these 27 rounds, the champion is awarded the trophy. Things are a little bit more complicated regarding relegation, but for simplicity let’s just say that one or two teams will be relegated to K League 2 (which is correct).

All games will be played behind closed doors until further notice. There are special rules regarding COVID-19 infections and consequences, where the league can be stopped, paused or adjusted if players, coaches or officials test positive. The rules say that the first 22 rounds have to be played before a winner can be determined; if the league is terminated earlier no trophy will be awarded.

A quick summary of the 2019 season

Before we move on to previewing each participating team in the 2020 K League, let’s quickly remind ourselves what happened last season, which was played as normal from March to December with 33 regular game weeks followed by the championship and relegation phase, each five rounds long for a total of 38 games.

The battle for the league title was extremely tense and exciting as both Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Ulsan Hyundai ended up with 79 points, meaning that Jeonbuk won the title because they scored one more goal (72) than Ulsan (71).

This was especially painful for Ulsan Hyundai as they had a three-point lead going into the 38th and last game week. Title celebrations were planned and expected after the home game versus Pohang Steelers, but after a tense first half ending 1-1 Ulsan lost their cool completely and lost the game 1-4. Jeonbuk won their home game 1-0 against Gangwon and could celebrate their third consecutive, and seventh in total, K League 1 title in disbelief.

Jeonbuk and Ulsan both qualified for the AFC Champions League group stage, while third placed FC Seoul qualified for the AFC Champions League play-off round. Interestingly enough this third place was also won on goals scored, as both FC Seoul and the above mentioned Pohang Steelers both finished with 56 points. As you can tell, the 2019 season in the K League 1 was a thriller!

Suwon Samsung Bluewings qualified for the AFC Champions League group stage after winning the Korean FA Cup. Jeju United finished last and were relegated while Gyeongnam FC were relegated after losing the relegation play-offs versus Busan IPark.

The Suwon Samsung Bluewings striker Adam Taggart, from Australia, scored 20 goals and became the top goal scorer of the league. Ulsan Hyundai’s Brazilian forward Júnior Negrão came in second with 19 goals.

As for pure facts which could interest sports bettors and other statistics-oriented people:

Home wins: 90 (39,47%)
Draws: 67 (29,39%)
Away wins: 71 (31,14%)

Under 2,5 goals: 118 (51,75%)
Over 2,5 goals: 110 (48,25%)
Over 3,5 goals: 54 (23,68%)

Most common results: 1-1 (13,6%) - 2-1 (12,3%) - 2-0 (9,2%) - 0-0 (9,2%) - 1-2 (8,3%)

Team previews

Busan IPark

Established:1983 (as Daewoo Royals)
City and home stadium: Busan, Busan Gudeok Stadium
2019 season: 2nd place in K League 2 and promoted through playoff
Head coach: Cho Deok-je
Odds to win K League 1: 501 (subject to change without notice)

Busan IPark were one of the original five members of the K League and played at the top level from 1983 to 2015, when they were relegated. Finally, they are back!

The four time K League winners have used an attacking philosophy in K League 2, perhaps a little bit naive in defence. One would think that adjustments would have to be made to survive at this level, where their attacking powers might not yield as many goals while their defending weaknesses could more easily be exploited.

Key players Soma Novothny and Aleksandar Susnjar both returned to their home countries after the season, creating an increased need to bolster the squad. A fairly young team have been strengthened with K League veterans such as 34 year old Kang Min-soo and 32 year old Kim Dong-woo. These two centre backs have hundreds of K League games worth of experience between them. The Brazilian playmaker and crowd favourite Romulo is still in the team. He is one of the reasons why this team is recognized as being entertaining to watch.

To conclude, Busan IPark will be happy if they can survive at this level. With the shortened season, learning the new level quickly is required.

Daegu FC

Established: 2002
City and home stadium: Daegu, DGB Daegu Bank Park
2019 season: 5th place
Head coach: Lee Byung-keun
Odds to win K League 1: 21 (subject to change without notice)

Daegu was established less than 20 years ago and made their debut in K League 1 in 2003. The fifth place they secured in 2019 was their best result in the league so far, and it was a victory for the team to make top six and the championship round.

All South Korean teams have had challenges warming up for this season because of the corona virus, but Daegu have perhaps had more problems than most. Their Brazilian manager André resigned in January after a dispute with the club’s executive director and his assistant Lee Byung-keun is now leading the club. He has limited experience from such a big role.

During the winter the team have recruited new players such as the Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanovic and defenders Kim Jae-woo and Hwang Tae-hyeon. All these players have proven themselves in the K Leagues. On the other hand, the loss of South Korea international goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who played both in the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2018 Asian Games, could be troublesome as the probable first keeper Choi Young-eun has much less experience.

Despite a few questions marks surrounding the management and goalkeepers, the team should not be weakened enough to get in real trouble and could challenge for a top six position again. Daegu FC have several U23 national team talents and the success of these could catapult the club to another good season.

Gangwon FC

Nickname: Gangwon Kodiaks
Established: 2008
City and home stadium: Gangwon Province, Chuncheon Songam Stadium
2019 season: 6th place
Head coach: Kim Byung-soo
Odds to win K League 1: 21 (subject to change without notice)

Gangwon FC entered the K League 1 in 2009 and managed to stay there for five years. The club finished outside the top ten in every one of these seasons until they were finally relegated in 2014. Three years in K League 2 followed before the 2016 season was crowned with promotion.

The team now looks firmly established at the top level and challenged for a top three spot last season. Unfortunately for Gangwon FC they had a weak finish to the season, not helped by injuries to their top goalscorers Kim Ji-hyeon and Cho Jae-wan. Without the goals from these two players the defensive problems of the team could not be hidden, and the club let in 58 goals from 38 matches, more than any other top ten team.

Both players mentioned above are still in the club, but the team have been active in the transfer market this winter and looks to go through a minor rebuild with a fairly large number of players coming and going.

Gangwon play very possession-oriented and have a clear style. If the defence can be tightened up, the fresh recruits succeed and key attackers go through the season with few injuries; this team could possibly challenge for a medal.

Gwangju FC

Nickname: Gwangju Griffins
Established: 2010
City and home stadium: Gwangju, Gwangju World Cup Stadium
2019 season: Won K League 2
Head coach: Park Jin-sub
Odds to win K League 1: 251 (subject to change without notice)

Gwangju FC are back in K League 1 after two years absence. The team took the top position in the K League 2 league table after game week two in 2019 and stayed top until the season was completed. A strong performance from the club, who employs the mayor of the central city Gwangju, the sixth largest in South Korea, as their chairman.

The team has managed to keep their Brazilian striker Felipe, who scored 19 goals in 27 league games in 2019 and became the K League 2 top goalscorer despite missing nine matches through losing his temper and receiving a suspension.. The 193 centimeters tall forward has really found his place in South Korea and has lot more to offer than just his height, which on its own is a good weapon.

Gwangju FC is expected to battle against relegation this season and need to fly out of the starting blocks and collect points from the beginning. The club is expected to play 4-5-1 again and much of the responsibility to score goals will be shouldered by Felipe, who needs to control his temper and stay focused.

Incheon United

Nickname: Mariners
Established: 2003
City and home stadium: Incheon, Incheon Football Stadium
2019 season: 10th place
Head coach: Lim Wan-Sup
Odds to win K League 1: 201 (subject to change without notice)

Not much is expected of Incheon after avoiding a relegation playoff by one point last season, but the team has an admirable ability to survive at the top level. Despite finishing in eight to tenth place in the last six seasons (since the K League 1 switched to twelve teams), Incheon have never been relegated since they joined in 2004. This has been accomplished despite a major financial crisis in 2012-2013.

Incheon spent much of last season in the twelfth and last place in the league table, but managed to climb the necessary two places during the final eight game weeks. A managerial change was part of this rescue operation, but the manager who came in and saved Incheon (Yoo Sang-chul) was diagnosed with cancer towards the end of the season and has been replaced by Lim Wan-Sup.

Most of the squad is similar to the second half of the 2019 season, which provides some optimism for the fanatic supporters that Incheon will avoid a relegation fight this season. It’s a special season due to the corona virus pandemic and continuity (despite changing manager) could be enough for a safe ride.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC

Nickname: Warriors
Established: 1994
City and home stadium: Jeonju, Jeonju World Cup Stadium
2019 season: 1st place (champions)
Head coach: José Morais
Odds to win K League 1: 2.10 (favourites) (subject to change without notice)

As mentioned above, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors secured their 2019 championship in an incredibly dramatic fashion. This was their third league championship in a row and the team have not finished outside the top three since 2008. Thus, Jeonbuk are one of the most successful South Korean teams and definitely the most merited one during the last ten years. The club has also won the AFC Champions League twice (2006 and 2016).

The Portuguese manager José Morais had 2019 as his debut season in this club after a long management career in clubs all over the world, including being assistant in huge teams such as Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea.

Expectations are high in this club and the team are odds favourites to win the league championship again. The board and supporters expect trophies to be won every season, and the lack of cup success (not having won a national cup since 2005) is painful for many. However, despite a few major player purchases such as the Japanese forward Takahiro Kunimoto and the experienced midfielder Kim Bo-kyung, the squad does not look clearly improved. Jeonbuk could well win their fourth championship in a row, however with a rocky start the manager Morais and the team could face too much pressure to handle.

Pohang Steelers

Established: 1973
City and home stadium: Pohang, Pohang Steel Yard
2019 season: 4th place
Head coach: Kim Gi-dong
Odds to win K League 1: 7 (subject to change without notice)

Pohang Steelers finished in fourth place after a very strong finish to the season where they climbed from ninth to fourth in the last twelve game weeks, securing the fourth position in the final round of the season where they sensationally beat Ulsan Hyundai 4-1 away to deny them the league championship title.

As the name suggest, Pohang have their background in the steel industry. The team is one of the most successful sides in South Korean football history with five championships and three victories in the AFC Champions League. However, since winning the league in 2013 the team has struggled to meet expectations and has finished every season without trophies.

Pohang are looking to build on the momentum from the finish of last season, a task made more difficult by the postponements and changes to this year’s K League. Most of the squad is intact from last season and so is the manager who took over in April 2019 after a poor start. The Brazilian Wanderson was important in the 2019 season, but has left for football in the Middle East. Two other foreigners have been brought in, the Colombian forward Manuel Palacios and the Australian midfielder Brandon O’Neill, who has one appearance for the Australian national team.

A top three position is a natural goal for Pohang Steelers this season. With a shortened season, this means they have to pick up where they left off in 2019.

Sangju Sangmu FC

Established: 1984
City and home stadium: Sangju, Sangju Civic Stadium
2019 season: 7th place
Head coach: Kim Tae-wan
Odds to win K League 1: 101 (subject to change without notice)

Sangju Sangmu held top position in the league table during the first three game weeks of the 2019 season, but ultimately fell to seventh. The team has never won the K League 1, it’s only trophies as a professional club being the K League 2 championships in 2013 and 2015.

Sangju Sangmu is the sports division of the South Korean military. South Korea have a compulsory two-year military duty, and the talented footballers having to serve in the army join up with the team, spending up to two years there before returning to their previous club. Sangmu are not allowed to sign foreign players and the nature of this team means that the squad changes a lot every season.

The club seem to have lost especially many players before this season, as most of the 2019 squad finished their military service and left the team. Key players in all sections of the team are gone and replaced with 15 new recruits from various South Korean clubs. This batch of new blood includes such as winger Moon Seon-min, who has 14 appearances for the national team and several years experience from both Swedish and South Korean top clubs.

With a new squad it’s hard to know what to expect from Sangmu, but the team should be capable of a mid-table finish if the new arrivals connect quickly. One challenge is that the club will be relegated independently of league position due to a restructuring process, so there is little to play for and the national cups might be made a priority. This means that in the (unlikely) event of Sangmu winning the league, they will relegate as fresh championship holders.

Regardless of results, Sangju Sangmu players are respected for their national service.

Seongnam FC

Nickname: Seongnam Magpies
Established: 1989
City and home stadium: Seongnam, Tancheon Stadium
2019 season: 9th place
Head coach: Kim Nam-il
Odds to win K League 1: 101 (subject to change without notice)

Seongnam were very stable in the league table last season, holding position eight or nine more or less throughout the whole season. As a team freshly promoted from K League 2 they were happy with their position and their gap in points to the relegation contenders.

The team are one of the greats in South Korean football, having won seven championships, three each of the FA Cup / League cup and two AFC Champions League trophies. In later years the team have been through a turbulent period and they are still fighting to return to former glory and quality.

Goal scoring was a challenge last season with only 30 goals from 38 matches, the lowest of all twelve teams. The explanation for the few goals was a defensive setup that only conceded 40 goals. Seongman have let their two foreign strikers, Eder and Mathias Coureur, travel to new adventures.

The hope is that new signing Tomislav Kis, a Croatian with experience from clubs such as Hajduk Split, Kortrijk and Zalgiris, will score goals. Another new signing is the Uzbek midfielder Jamshid Sikanderov who has 21 national team appearances and three Uzbek league championship medals. Seongnam have also signed the Croatian defender Igor Jovanovic in a winter break that has seen many players come and go. It will probably be a bottom table finish again.

FC Seoul

Nickname: Seoul Dragons
Established: 1983
City and home stadium: Seoul, Seoul World Cup Stadium
2019 season: 3rd place
Head coach: Choi Yong-soo
Odds to win K League 1: 6 (subject to change without notice)

FC Seoul, the team from the capital, have won six K League titles and several cups. The club has a solid financial backing and a strong identity. According to Wikipedia FC Seoul was considered the most valuable football brand in the K League in 2012. They last won the league in 2016, but were close to relegation in 2018. Based on that performance the bronze medal in 2019 was a comeback to former glory.

FC Seoul have one of the biggest stars in South Korea in their ranks, the Brazilian Adriano. Not the striker who played for clubs such as Fiorentina, Parma, Inter Milan and Roma, but still a pretty decent goal scorer and twice K League winner (once with FC Seoul). He is now back at the club after a couple of years in Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, where he failed to score as many goals as he is used to.

The team have made a few more signings for their attack and midfield and the club seems not to have lost key players. Being back in the AFC Champions League (provided it is played as planned) could prove a distraction and the team should probably be happy with a top four finish. A resurgence of form for players such as Adriano could take FC Seoul even higher.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Nickname: Blue wings
Established: 1995
City and home stadium: Suwon, Suwon World Cup Stadium
2019 season: 8th place and FA Cup winners
Head coach: Lee Lim-saeng
Odds to win K League 1: 34 (subject to change without notice)

Suwon Samsung Bluewings have won four K League 1 titles, most recently in 2008. Since then their best results are silver medals in 2014 and 2015 and a couple of cup trophies. The team is owned by a subsidiary of electronics (and much more) giant Samsung, one of the biggest brands in the world.

The cup victory in 2019 means that the Bluewings are back in the AFC Champions League (if it’s played) for the first time since 2017. However, chances are that the team will have little to offer in that competition or the K League as their manager Lee Lim-saeng is not trusted by supporters and the squad looked thin last year. The Australian striker Adam Taggart was the key player with his 20 goals, making him the K League top scorer. Scoring nearly half his team’s league goals made sure the club stayed out of relegation trouble, but his performance and the cup trophy might cover up bigger challenges.

A few important players have left the team, and it remains to be seen whether signings such as the Bosnian journeyman Sulejman Krpic and the Canadian centre back Doneil Henry are enough to improve the Bluewings.

Ulsan Hyundai

Nickname: Ulsan Tigers
Established: 1983
City and home stadium: Ulsan, Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium
2019 season: 2nd place
Head coach: Kim Do-hoon
Odds to win K League 1: 3.50(subject to change without notice)

As mentioned earlier in this article, Ulsan Hyundai missed out on the league championship 2019 in the final game week of the season when they lost 1-4 at home to rivals Pohang Steelers. A draw would have been enough to clinch the title, which was lost on goals scored to Jeonbuk Motors. This must have been incredibly difficult to handle for Ulsan, who have not won the title since 2005.

Much of the blame for the bitter defeat was handed out to manager Kim Do-hoon, but he has a new chance to make things right this time. However, several key players have left the club either by choice or for military service, but the fans have been somewhat camed by the signing of the experienced winger Lee Chung-yong, who has 89 appearances for the national team and ten years of playing in English football (Bolton and Crystal Palace) followed by two years in German club Bochum.

Chung-yong will play alongside other South Korea veterans such as Park Joo-ho, captain Lee Keun-ho and new signing Yoon Bit-Garam. Foreigners in the club include the veteran Brazilian striker Junior Negrao, Norwegian striker Bjorn Maars Johnsen (195 centimeters long) and Dutch defender Dave Bulthuis.

Could this be the year for Ulsan?

All matches in the K League are previewed on Tipsway:

Sources: Wikipedia,, Oddschecker, Soccerway, Twitter and various news sources