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A Tribute to Mugunghwa: The End of an Era in Asan

Several players will be playing their final matches for Asan Mugunghwa when they line up against Busan IPark at Yi Sun-sin Stadium on Sunday night.  The departing group will leave an indelible mark in club history, as they comprised a good portion of last season's championship winning team.  What the future holds for the team as they complete their transition in fully becoming a citizen club remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure - in Park Dong-hyuk, they have a man who is more than capable of seeing them through the next phase of their evolution.  KLU's Branko Belan has more.

Asan winning the K League 2 championship last season was certainly one of the greatest moments in the K League in either division in recent years.  The brand of football displayed by the military outfit was leaps and bounds above all other teams in the second tier in 2018.  It was refreshing to watch them play with so much intensity and will to win, considering that military clubs have not traditionally done well through the years.  Before the move, however, Asan was in Ansan, and had a similar degree of success when they won the title back in 2016.

For some, Asan was still very much an unlikely champion last year, as they didn't really have a marquee man in attack to lead the line.  Ko Mu-yeol, who has broken out in a big way this year, was off form most of the year and had disciplinary issues from time to time, putting a serious dent in his consistency of form for much of the season.  Han Eui-gwon was the team's leading scorer last season with seven goals, but he returned to Suwon Bluewings in K League 1 once he finished his military service.  Jo Seong-joon and Lee Myung-joo were the team's overall leaders in attack points with ten each.  Jo counted for five goals and five assists, while Lee accounted for the same number.

And, perhaps that was one of the hallmarks of this championship squad.  Production was spread throughout the team, and it became one of the major reasons why they eventually won the league by a seven point margin in the end.

One look at last year's squad should have been enough to realize just how talented they were as a group.  Park Ju-won was between the sticks for most of the season before he returned to Daejeon Citizen following the completion of his military service, and he was superb.  He was a big reason why Asan went undefeated between May and August, even if it was his parent club which ended up being responsible for the defeats which both preceded and ended the streak.

The back line with Min Sang-gi, Lee Han-saem, Koo Dae-young and Kim Dong-jin (and for a time Lee Eud-deum) was almost unbreakable.  Asan were one of the strongest teams in the league defensively, and that is even more apparent this season with the back line struggling as much as it has.

But, to understand the true strength of the team, one had to look no further than the middle of the park, with the likes of Ju Se-jong and Hwang In-beom combining as one of the best midfield tandems in Korean football before the latter also returned to Daejeon in the fall, a trend which has also seen its share of action for the national team since Paulo Bento took the helm last August.  Lee Myung-joo, Kim Do-hyeok, Park Se-jik and Jo Seong-joon all had critical roles in the team's success last season whether it was contributing goals and assists or locking down the middle third to preserve wins in the late stages of matches.  But, in many ways, Ju Se-jong was responsible for keeping the core in the middle of the park together as a whole.

Lim Chang-gyun scored late for the win against FC Anyang in Asan's final home match last season.
Up front, Kim Hyun was a big factor in the middle portion of the season before returning to Jeju United, while Kim Ryun-do and Im Chang-gyun won some critical matches late in the year to put the title out of reach for the rest of the division.  It was Kim who scored the fourth against Seoul E-Land at the end of October in a 4-0 victory which clinched it all for Asan, as Lee Myung-joo and Kim Do-hyuk also found their names on the score sheet, as well as Ahn Sung-bin, who opened the account with an own goal for E-Land.  Asan's final home match of the season ended in a come from behind 2-1 win thanks to Im's late brace.

When news came at the end of the season that the possibility existed that there may be no more football in Asan because of a failure of the police agency to submit a recruitment plan for the 2019 season, many automatically feared the worst.  It was impossible to imagine that a team which had just won the league title would not even be able to compete the following year.  Things were exacerbated by the fact that the situation kept dragging out, and it wasn't until December that a decision was finally reached to allow Asan to take part in K League 2 this year.  It was of course too late, as Seongnam FC was granted automatic promotion as a result of the fiasco, but Asan were nevertheless still alive as a club.

The current season has had its ups and downs.  Asan have not been as dominant at the Yi Sun Shin Stadium as they were a year ago.  Last season, their combined record at home was eleven wins, five draws, and two losses, good for 38 points, with a 30:14 goal ratio, for a plus sixteen differential.

If Asan is going to be a factor in the playoff race late on in the season, the younger players have to realize that it is now time for them to step up if this team is going to have any outside chance of gaining promotion through the playoffs, should they still be in a position to contend once the league season is over.

But, before taking that into consideration, there is a small matter of giving the club's heroes a proper sendoff as they take the pitch for one final time on Sunday in the yellow and blue kit which they made famous.  Asan has never experienced this level of success, and moving forward without the stars who made it possible is certainly going to be difficult, but resolve remains strong, and if one thing is true, this team is going to fight for everything to the bitter end.  It is, sadly, the end of an era, albeit a short one, but the 2018 season will go down in memory as not only the greatest in club history, one which may never be matched again, but also one of the greatest stories in the K League in many years.

Park Dong-hyuk remains steadfast in his mission to build and maintain a winner.  He will have his work cut out for him, but with a championship to his credit already, he has a blueprint to follow.

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