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Breaking down the relegation/promotion playoffs

So, the K League Challenge officially wrapped up their 2015 season this past weekend, and we finally know who got promoted and who will enter the playoffs. And, more importantly we also know how things will go in terms of the seeding and possible permutations. Busan will meet the winner of the three Challenge teams in a two-legged tie for possible relegation or promotion.

The Playoffs

Let's start with a basic explanation of how the playoffs work. The teams that finished 2nd - 4th in the K League Challenge make the playoffs. That would be Daegu FC (2nd), Suwon FC (3rd), and Seoul E-Land FC (4th). The whole of the playoffs essentially consists of 3 rounds. A 1st round match between the 3rd and 4th placed teams. A 2nd round between the winner of the 1st round and the 2nd placed team. Finally, a 3rd round between the winner of the 2nd round and the 11th placed K League Classic team. Sound confusing? Maybe a bit, but here's a simple graphic from Wikipedia that makes things easier to understand.

Rounds 1 and 2 (between the three Challenge sides) are one-off matches. Winner moves up, loser goes home and faces another year in the 2nd division. The final round between the Challenge winner and Classic side is a two-legged affair. The first leg is at the Challenge side's home stadium, and the second leg is at the Classic team's home stadium.

1st Round: Suwon FC vs Seoul E-Land FC - November 25 at Suwon Sports Complex
2nd Round: Daegu FC vs Winner of 1st Round - November 28 at Daegu Stadium
3rd Round 1st Leg: Winner of 2nd Round vs Busan IPark - December 2 at TBD location
3rd Round 2nd Leg: Busan IPark vs Winner of 2nd Round - December 5 at Gudeok Stadium

The "Challengers"

As already mentioned, three sides: Daegu FC, Suwon FC, and Seoul E-Land FC have qualified for the playoffs. A brief rundown of the three.

Daegu FC

Record: 18-13-9
Points: 67
Goals scored: 67
Goals conceded: 47

Being in the playoffs is a massive disappointment for Daegu. The side invested heavily in order to get back to the Classic this past year. They hired former Korea NT boss Cho Kwang-rae to run the football operations, and spent significant money on players. Daegu had a great run in the second half of the season to charge up the table and overtake Sangju at the top. However they stumbled down the home stretch, losing once and drawing three times in their final four games to hand the title to Sangju (a win on the final day against Bucheon would have seen them crowned champions). Of the top four sides, Daegu comes across as being the most defensive side. They scored 10 fewer goals than Sangju, and easily conceded the least of them. That being said they certainly weren't a slouch in attack, and they boast the Challenge's top scorer in Jonathan (26 goals in 39 appearances).

Suwon FC

Record: 18-11-11
Points: 65
Goals scored: 64
Goals conceded: 54

Of the four sides, Suwon is probably the "surprise" in the group. While they did well when they were in the National League, as a Challenge side they've generally been a midtable side (5th [of 8 teams] in 2013 and 6th [of 10 teams] in 2014). The same was broadly expected of them this season, but a midseason spike saw them climb the table. The Brazilian center forward Japa and Spanish midfielder Sisi have formed a solid attacking combo, and the team as a whole has played some attractive stuff this season. Suwon tops the possession chart as well as the number of shots taken.

Seoul E-Land

Record: 16-13-11
Points: 61
Goals scored: 69
Goals conceded: 58

Great result or disappointing result? Realistically, it's probably the former rather than the latter. For a brand-new side to finish fourth and possibly get promoted to the top-flight is a great achievement (even if the latter doesn't happen). On the other hand so much was expected from Seoul E-Land before the season began, and they're the only Challenge side backed by corporate money. So, in that sense perhaps there's a little bit of disappointment they face the biggest climb of the three. Seoul E-Land got off to a very good start, largely behind the explosion of goals from Joo Min-kyu. However, they've cooled off quite a bit in the latter part of the season, and for a little while there were concerns that they may fall out of the playoff spots. Those concerns turned out to be unfounded, but E-Land's form will probably have some fans slightly worried.

Season Meetings

Daegu FC vs Suwon FC

Daegu 1-4 Suwon FC
Suwon FC 2-2 Daegu
Daegu 1-2 Suwon FC
Suwon FC 0-2 Daegu

Edge: SUWON FC - Suwon beat Daegu both times they traveled south, a stat that bodes well for them considering that in order to move on, they'll need to do so again. They also put 8 goals past Daegu which is impressive since Daegu conceded just 47 all season.

Daegu FC vs Seoul E-Land

Seoul E-Land 1-1 Daegu
Daegu 1-0 Seoul E-Land
Seoul E-Land 0-2 Daegu
Daegu 3-3 Seoul E-Land

Edge: DAEGU FC - Seoul E-Land failed to beat Daegu this season, losing twice and drawing twice. The two sides played out an exciting 3-3 draw in Daegu in their final meeting, something that I suppose bodes well for E-Land. They can compete with Daegu, but will need a bit extra.

Suwon FC vs Seoul E-Land

Suwon FC 1-5 Seoul E-Land
Seoul E-Land 2-0 Suwon FC
Suwon FC 3-1 Seoul E-Land
Seoul E-Land 1-4 Suwon FC

EDGE: SUWON FC - Both teams had solid wins at home and landslide wins away, but E-Land's were both in the early part of the season while Suwon's were later. That would match the teams' rough form through the season with Seoul better early and Suwon better late. It should be a close match, as E-Land seems the better team (on paper), but the match will be in Suwon and form favors the home side.

Who Comes Out?

Difficult to say, but based purely on the season results and general form, Suwon FC would seem to be the likeliest of the three to emerge. Their form has been solid, and they've been marginally better in the head-to-head meetings with E-Land and Daegu. That being said, those two matches are one-off affairs and anything can happen.

Daegu is struggling for form down the stretch, and I wonder if the disappointment of missing out on the title and automatic promotion will negatively affect their performance. They're a good side, and probably deserve to be rewarded for their investment in the side, but I have some doubts about them right now.

E-Land packs plenty of firepower, but they're defense is a concern. They let in 58 goals this season, only Goyang (68) and Chungju (65) conceded more. They also have the tricky task of (potentially) playing three of the four matches on the road (although E-Land had a better away win percentage than home).

Busan's Chances

Busan's chances at staying up took a significant hit when news came out that forward Lee Jeong-hyeob suffered an ankle injury (vs Jeonnam) that will likely rule him out for the rest of the season. Lee Jeong-hyeob hasn't been brilliant since returning to Busan a few weeks ago, but it's easy to see his mentality, drive, and workrate considerably outstrips the rest of the team. Busan will likely go to a smaller forward unit (something like Wesley, Han Ji-ho, and Choi Kwang-hee).

History doesn't give much encouragement for Busan, since in the past two relegation-promotion playoffs (the only two in K League history) the two Classic sides (Gangwon and Gyeongnam) were both relegated. Gangwon fell to a strong Sangju side that boasted the likes of Lee Keun-ho and Lee Sang-hyub. Gyeongnam fell to a surging Gwangju side.

The key to Busan staying up are two-fold. 1) Keep the scoreline down in the away game (1st leg). In the past two pro-rel playoffs, the tie was essentially decided in the first leg when the Challenge sides surged to big wins at home. Busan must not allow whoever they play against to do this. While a win would obviously be preferable, a 0-0 or 1-1 draw would be a good result. 2) Keep a clean sheet at home. A tricky task for a leaky Busan defense, but they must be tight for the home leg. Goals will be in short order for Busan, and so keeping the opposition out, and potentially forcing penalties is important. This isn't a side that will win in a high scoring affair.

Mentality and fitness will also be important. Suwon is dangerous for me because they come into the playoffs in a solid run of form and will likely have a good mindset. Wins over E-Land and Daegu will give them a big boost similar to Gwangju's last season. E-Land could do it too, but they feel a bit streakier and weaker going in. While it'd be good for a city the size of Daegu to have a top flight team, they have the hallmarks of one that will ultimately fall short. Slumping down the stretch, and having to deal with the disappointment of missing out on a tiebreaker.

Fitness is the other issue. Daegu will be on a normal schedule. They played last weekend, and then will play the 2nd round next weekend, but will then have a short turnaround to the 3rd round. Suwon FC and Seoul E-Land will both have to cram in several games. They both played on the weekend, will play midweek against each other, and then have to play Daegu next weekend before facing Busan midweek next week. Busan will be on the same schedule as Daegu. They'll play next weekend against Ulsan, and then have the midweek pro-rel match 1st leg.

It's difficult to predict this playoff. Busan has been poor this season, but could pull it together for the playoffs. Daegu has quality in the side, but are struggling with form and disappointment. Suwon FC and Seoul E-Land are good teams, but are both new to the challenges of promotion. Any of the four could come out of it. Let's just hope it's BUSAN!

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