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ACL Collapse: Why Three Teams Crashed Out in 2017

Just one year after Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors claimed the AFC Champions League title for Korea, three of K League's four teams involved crashed out in the group stages. Our Scott Whitelock, Matthew Binns, and Ryan Walters assess the damage and what led each team to this point.
(header image via bluewings.kr)

Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Suwon’s failings in this year’s ACL can be attributed to one thing; simply a lack of cutting edge in front of goal. The performances in the ACL were much better than those when they were in domestic action, and also much improved on last season’s ACL campaign. Suwon controlled the majority of the games they played in, especially so, when they dominated Guangzhou in China, but time and time again they were unable to convert the chances they created.

The turning point in what was shaping up to be a decent campaign was the home loss to Kawasaki, when Johnathan was missing from the matchday squad. Replacement striker Park Ki-dong really struggled to perform that night, as chance after chance was spurned by the Korean frontman. A draw against Kawasaki would have seen Suwon progress to the knockout stages, however, the loss put them in a difficult situation, and the rest is history.

Scott Whitelock

Ulsan Hyundai

(Kashima Antlers finish off Ulsan. Photo via edaily)
To some extent, Ulsan’s exit from the competition at the group stages is the least shocking given that they were not originally intended to participate at all. Their late inclusion in the Champions League, courtesy of Jeonbuk’s disqualification, triggered a flurry of last minute spending in order to compete at a continental level. However, the sudden influx of players, not to mention the shortened pre-season schedule and a new manager to boot, meant time was needed for the team to play together, time that sadly was in very little supply.

That said, there were indications that the team should have performed better. Their opening group defeat to Kashima Antlers showed plenty of reasons for optimism, and their following 6-0 rout of Brisbane in the second round of games looked as if those hopes would be vindicated. Despite this, Ulsan were unable to score against anyone else in the group stages so it is perhaps suitable that they also only finished above them.

Ulsan supporters will be disheartened that their side struggled to make an impact in this tournament but should not be discouraged. The team they have built is beginning to look as if they are finding their feet, crawling into the league’s top four with the potential to continue on an upward trajectory. It is only May after all.

Matthew Binns

FC Seoul

After reaching the semis in 2016, FC Seoul's failure to make it out of the group stage has to be considered the most disappointing of all the K League teams involved. Coming into 2017 with the tagline "Champion Like Always," Seoul has looked anything but and their inability to perform was never more glaringly on display than during their six match run in ACL. Though they did manage to break a curse and pick up a win playing at Western Sydney Wanderers and the kids had a strong showing against a Urawa B-side, lopsided and frankly embarrassing losses will be what's remembered from this tournament. While the capital club could rightly feel they should have had something from the tournament opening loss vs Shanghai SIPG at home, any feelings of wrongdoing were wiped clean when they were walloped in Urawa 5-2. Even though there were plenty of games to be played afterwards, that match in Japan was the moment Seoul fans knew this tournament was doomed and that this team could be in for a rough year.

It seems a bit heavy-handed to place so much on a single game, but what Urawa exposed in February continued to haunt Seoul throughout the tournament and indeed through 2017 thus far. Woeful defending on crosses and set pieces that leaves players remarkably wide open. Yoo Hyun's utter and complete incompetence that puts the team in a hole before they've been able to find any rhythm. And most problematically, the inability of anyone not named Dejan Damjanović to put the team on his back and score enough goals to win the game. Seoul was always going to have a tough go in what many considered the ACL's Group of Death, but no one thought it would be this bad.

Ryan Walters

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