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2018 Season Preview: Gangwon FC

Gangwon FC made its return to the top flight of Korean football last season following a three year stint in the Challenge.  The club managed to finish in the top half of the table, and has its sights set on improving their standing from a year ago.  With the arrivals of some big names into the squad, they just may become a force to be reckoned with this season.
(image via Gangwon-FC.com)

Last Season

13-10-15, 6th place

What Happened?

Many believed Gangwon would be bottom feeders in the league when they gained promotion to the top flight for the first time in three years last season. However, the club showed some positives in fighting for a place in the top half of the table for much of the season. Their chances to challenge for at least a qualification berth in this year's Champions League took a massive blow as they ended the season losing four of five matches in the championship round, their lone victory coming at home against FC Seoul by a margin of 4-0.

Notable Moves

Gangwon spent the off-season strengthening its squad by bringing in some notable names.  The man at the top of the list is Australian central defender Dylan McGowan, who formerly played for Scottish side Hearts and his home club, Adelaide United in the A League.  His addition in the middle of the back line is meant to shore up a Gangwon backline that conceded 65 goals last season, good for third worst in the league. Only Jeonnam Dragons and Sangju Sangmu allowed more.

The team will also be more experienced in goal this season, thanks to the arrival of Kim Ho-jun from Jeju United. After four seasons with the island club, the 33 year old makes a move back to the mainland, hoping to once again become a number one 'keeper. The club is hoping that his experience (101 total caps in the K League) can have a positive impact on the defensive core and the team as a whole.

In an effort to inject the offence with extra scoring punch, 25 year old Uros Djeric was brought over from FK Napredak Krusevac of the Serbian Super Liga, where he made 16 appearances, scoring eight goals.  At 6'4", the center forward could prove to be a nuisance for defenders in the box if given consistent minutes on the pitch.  There are signs of his goal scoring potential, however, as he was top scorer in the Serbian Prva Liga for Sloboda Uzice with 19 goals in 28 appearances during the 2016/17 campaign.

Needs

Gangwon was almost an even club on home ground last season, winning five, losing six, and drawing five, with a goal differential of +1.  Their road form was even better, as they posted seven wins, four draws, and six losses, but allowed four more goals than they scored, with 31 for and 35 against.  That said, adding McGowan to the back four should address their most important need already - defence.  But, simply adding players to the squad alone will not guarantee results - players will need to stay healthy and be on good form in order to develop the chemistry needed to stay in the top half of the league down the stretch once again.

The second important need for the club is experience. After three seasons playing against competition a cut below the best, the team needs flat out match experience and a greater sense of continuity if they hope to be challenging for the top six again this season. Having made an impact last year, they could be ready to take the next step. With several key moves occurring in the off-season, Gangwon could prove to be a team to look out for this season.

Key Player

Lee Keun-ho

At 32 years of age, and with a career spanning more than a decade, he is the captain and veteran presence in the side.  He has played for an array of K League clubs including Ulsan Hyundai, whom he lifted the ACL trophy with in 2012, and Jeju United, where he played before joining his current club. He has also had stints in Japan and Qatar, and has been capped by the national team on 84 occasions, scoring 19 times for his country.

Throughout his career, Lee has been a very reliable player and is known for his ball control skill on the wing where he plies his trade the bulk of the time. If Gangwon are to have success this season, he will have to be a main reason for it. The bulk of the squad is composed of younger talent, most of whom gained first division experience for the first time last season. Up to this point, Lee has maintained his longevity well. He will need to keep that up and avoid injuries, especially down the stretch, if the team is going to hang around at the end of the season.

Biggest Question  

Is it too soon to expect big things?

Gangwon had a very respectable return to K League 1 last season, but went out once again to upgrade the squad for the 2018 season. With the likes of Jeonbuk, Jeju, Seoul, and Ulsan being the bulk of the competition in the top half of the league year after year, Gangwon will be hard pressed to put a dent into those clubs aspirations in the new campaign. It's true they have brought in some attractive pieces in the past two seasons in an effort to "play with the big boys," but if last season's stretch run is anything to go by, there is still a lot of work for the club to do.  

It will be interesting to see how they do under new manager Song Kyung-seop, who took over last November, debuting on the last day of the season in a 2-1 loss to Ulsan Hyundai.  He previously served as the club's scout.  

Reason to Watch

Gangwon has invested a lot in new players since moving back into the elite ranks of Korean football, meaning they have a "win now" mentality.  Some of the bigger clubs (FC Seoul comes to mind) did not fare as well as they had hoped last season, so Gangwon could potentially sneak a place higher in the league this season and challenge for a spot in continental competition. However, a lot will have to go right for even the best set of circumstances to present themselves. It is rather refreshing, however, to see that they have a will to compete. If they can balance out their squad better in comparison to last year, things will surely be looking up.

As previously mentioned, the appearance of a new manager who is already familiar with the club and knows the organization and players well could bode very well for results in the league this year.  The club's managerial post was vacant for two months last season after Choi Yun-kyum stepped down in August.  Song had a brief stint with Jeonnam Dragons last season as well, so the responsibility of being a manager is something which is not totally foreign to him.  It should be interesting to see how he forms his squad and what he can get out of his players. 

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