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Preview: FC Seoul vs Gangwon FC

After suffering an early red card and eventual defeat to rivals Jeonbuk their last time out, FC Seoul are more than ready to shake off the 10 day break they've had to stew on the loss. They welcome a slightly sliding Gangwon side tied on points and just one spot above them on the table. Can Seoul get revenge for Gangwon's 3-2 victory last time they played in Sangam? Will manager Hwang Sunhong actually start K League's assist leader or the striker chasing the Golden Boot? And what exactly can we glean from the All Star Game? All of that and a bit more below.
(image via starin.edaily.co.kr)



All Stars?

In case you missed it, the all-Korean K League All Stars were sent to Hanoi Friday night to play a match Saturday night against Vietnam's U22 National Team... and they lost. As Marc Harrison (co-host of the Hanoi Football Show) and I talked about in the match preview, this was a night more about spreading the reach of K League and Korean football in general than the match itself, and in that regard it can only be looked at as unquestionable failure. That a hodgepodge team "chosen based on data analysis" failed to win against a national team that had more than 24 hours to prepare and are... ya know... an actual team isn't surprising nor upsetting. What's disappointing is that the game failed to justify its existence by falling flat in every aspect. When done properly, an All Star Game needs to be more about what's going on off the field. Hit social media hard with all sorts of photos of players "having a blast," interviews galore, and sell some merch. The league and indeed the KFA flat out failed here. Not least of which with free t-shirt/insane asylum kits they put players in. I doubt those are available for sale, but even if they were, what fan would want one? It's a failed opportunity to do something interesting with a one off kit (like the MLS has for their All Star Game this year) that people will spend some cash on to have an alternate version of their favorite player's kit. But, more importantly, they didn't accomplish the simple goal of entertaining the 25,000 fans who showed up and left without gaining any further interest in K League. And a lot of that rests on the shoulders of the man calling the shots for FC Seoul, Hwang Sunhong.

The game Hwang presented to Vietnamese fans in person (and anyone watching throughout the world) was one Seoul supporters will be all too familiar with: mindlessly lobbed balls heaved forward with abandon. When asked about the match, Hwang familiarly deflected any blame telling Yonhap "I think it's not right for people to think too negatively about this All-Star Game." Saying it's "important for us to think about developing the K League in a better way," rather than focus on the result. Which, make no mistake, is 100% true. The result wasn't what mattered, but the version of football on display certainly did and it's impossible for the Seoul faithful not to be negative about what they saw. Hwang managed to produce some of the most boring, incompetent football that's possible with such a talented roster. It's not the result that annoys, even though being outshot 21-7 by a youth team is... off putting, it's the way the team went about handling their business. If the goal was to spread K League's brand of football, then Hwang succeeded in displaying one of the prevalent and altogether frustrating brands Korea has to offer by having players hit the ball long time and again. More than being dull, the All Star Game showed just how flawed Hwang's favorite strategy is. Vietnam played well, but not out of their minds good. They were simply organized, kept the ball on the ground, and played to their strengths. They didn't reinvent the wheel to get the vast majority of chances and retain possession, they literally just avoided lobbing the ball up field at every. single. opportunity. Unlike Hwang, Vietnam U22 manager Hoàng Anh Tuấn allowed his midfield to be a part of the game. Using short, smart passes to dictate pace and keep the opposition chasing the ball. The patient approach tore the All Stars to shreds and eventually was enough to get and hold down a narrow lead.

Instead of deflecting blame or focus from the match, Hwang needs to learn from this and not simply brush it off as "growing the league." Friendly matches such as these are ultimately meaningless and the main goal should always be to avoid injury. However, they are learning opportunities and the All Star Game laid bare the glaring flaws of a tactic the manager stubbornly sticks to even though a bunch of kids just showed him how easy it is to break down.

Team Selection and The New Guy

With the All Star Game out of the way, Hwang can go back to focusing on roster roulette in Seoul and how he'll line up his men for the last midweek game until late September. Even though the team has had nearly two weeks off with K League taking a break last weekend, it would still be somewhat shocking to expect the foreign contingent of Dejan, Kova, and Khaled to all see the field. If form was taken into account, Dejan would unquestionably start up top. The Montenegrin striker has six goals in his last five games, but as was proven in the Jeonbuk match before the break, that's still not enough to get him a starting spot. Instead, Park Chuyoung is likely to get the nod and will hopefully be flanked on his left by the league's assist leader, Yun Illok. Yun has also been struggling to see the field of late in spite of having a quietly solid year. However, Seoul are going to need his two way play against Gangwon as the youngster Yoon Seungwon has provided little, if any, defensive cover from the wing. The 22-year-old usually makes up for it by providing pace down the wings and a feisty option in the box, but if Park's starting up top, then Seoul's going to need all the help they can get to prevent Gangwon from hitting the flanks on the break.

Some additional support in the midfield may come in the form of the newly signed Song Jin-hyung, who joins from the Arabian Gulf League's Al Sharjah. The 29-year-old comes to Seoul after just six appearances with the UAE club, but a number of years experience in K League already under his belt. After unsuccessful stints in Australia and France, Song had his breakout year in 2012 with Jeju United scoring 10 goals that season. He remained a steady presence in their energetic midfield for five seasons before making the move to Al Sharjah. Though he shouldn't necessarily be relied on for scoring Seoul's goals, he did put seven in for Jeju last year, so he's certainly a threat.

Champion(ship) Like Always

Even though Seoul aren't in danger of dropping below the Chapionship/Relegation Round dividing line even if they lose Wednesday night, a win would give them some much needed breathing space. Gangwon are currently tied with Seoul on 34 points, only have a +1 goal difference but have scored one more and so sit above the capital club. However, this is a six point match for both teams as they can either go ahead of their opponent by three points, or drop beneath them by the same margin. If Seoul is going to rebound this season and make a serious push for a guaranteed ACL spot, then they have a lot of points to make up. Knocking off a team tied on points and reeling as much as Gangwon is currently is essential not only to climb up the table, but also to get back some confidence after the Jeonbuk loss.

The Adversary

The rollercoaster season rolls on for Gangwon and they find themselves on the downturn yet again. Assembling so many new players after their 2016 promotion all but ensured the slow start they had, but the quality eventually showed through in the form of five wins out of six in May and June. Since then, the Bears have managed just two victories and enter Wednesday night winless in four. To make matters worse for the visitors, they've yet to hold a clean sheet on the road in 2017, so Seoul's likely to score at least once. Conversely, Gangwon have also scored in 100% of their away matches this season, so they're likely to nullify the goal they concede. Unsurprisingly, this trend has resulted in 70% of Gangwon's matches having over 2.5 goals scored in total, so this should be a decently entertaining match.

Who To Watch

It will be interesting to see if 22-year-old Vietnamese international Xuân Trường Lương gets some minutes after showing well against the All Stars over the weekend. Though he wasn't the player to finally make the break through for his country, he was consistently involved in the build up, wasn't afraid to take some shots, made intelligent passes, and ran better off the ball than any K League match I've seen him in. It's possible manager Choi Yunkyum will rest Lương after playing midweek, but at just 22, his legs can likely handle the minutes. Considering Gangwon haven't scored in 250 minutes of league play, Choi should be looking at any and all options to bolster the attack, so why not see if the kid can be the spark they need?


Fully expect the trend of Gangwon both conceding and scoring on the road to continue, but look for a late Seoul sub (likely Dejan or Kova) to be the difference.

FC Seoul 2-1 Gangwon FC

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