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Sangju Sangmu FC: Turning Point


Military team Sangju Sangmu have been one of the K League's surprise packages this year. Their impressive charge into the top half could be about to end, however, as twelve members of the squad are about to be discharged from national service to return to their parent clubs. Tomas Marcantonio assesses how they might cope with a depleted squad as we head into the season's final weeks.

Exceeding Expectations

At the start of the season Sangju Sangmu were one of the favourites for relegation from the K League 1. Given the mercenary nature of their recruitment process, this is understandable. Sangju are comprised of players serving their mandatory 20 month military service, loaned from teams across Korea’s top two divisions. A new batch of recruits joined in the summer, and a number of players will be discharged in September, so it stands to reason that coach Kim Tae-wan might struggle with consistency.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, however, and Sangju sit just two points off the top four, not to mention being in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. When you consider the unique nature of the team, it's clear that Kim's achievements this year deserve a great deal of credit.

One of Kim’s strengths this season has been keeping faith with a strong core of players. Kim could probably reel off his best eleven in his sleep. To put things in perspective, there are more Sangju players with over 1800 minutes of football this season (eight) than in all of the bottom three clubs combined (Incheon have three, Jeju three, and Gyeongnam only one).

Kim Tae-wan knows his players, he knows his gameplan, and the players know their roles inside out. Squad rotation is minimal at best, and team spirit is maximized. Unfortunately for Kim and Sangju as they head into the crucial part of the season, the first eleven is about to be dismantled and a downturn in results is widely expected. But is this doing a disservice to Kim and his well-drilled squad?

Departures

Full list of players being discharged from military service on 17th September (parent club in brackets):

Song Soo-young (Suwon FC)
Shin Chang-moo (Daegu FC)
Kim Min-woo (Suwon Bluewings)
Sim Dong-woon (Pohang Steelers)
Yoon Bit-garam (Jeju United)
Lee Sang-hyub (Incheon United)
Jo Soo-Cheol (Bucheon 1995)
Kim Young-bin (Gwangju FC)
Baek Dong-gyu (Jeju United)
Lee Tae-hee (Seongnam FC)
Cha Young-hwan (Busan IPark)
Kwon Tae-an (FC Anyang)

Yoon Bit-garam has been instrumental for Sangju this season.
In total, 12 players will depart Sangju next month. Among them are five key members of Kim’s first team. Right wing-back Kim Tae-hee and left-sided centre-back Kim Young-bin have been stalwarts in Sangju’s lineup, and striker Sim Dong-woon will also be missed, his pace having been a vital part of Kim’s gameplan in the latter stages of games.

Most notably, captain Kim Min-woo and vice-captain Yoon Bit-garam will also return to their parent clubs. Both are vastly experienced internationals and central to Sangju’s impressive points haul this year. But will their departures have as much of an impact as expected?

The Trusted Lieutenants

Top scorer Park Yong-ji will remain with the club until January 2020.
Despite the number of departures, the spine of Sangju’s team will not be greatly disturbed. Several key players, including goalkeeper Yoon Bo-sang, centre-back Kwon Wan-kyu, and nine-goal centre forward Park Yong-ji, will remain with the team until January. Central midfield workhorse Lee Gyu-seong, virtually an ever-present, and pacey forward Song Si-woo have also impressed and will keep their places in the starting eleven.

There are plenty of reinforcements in defence to plug the holes left by the departing Kim Tae-hee and Kim Young-bin, and Sim Dong-woon, for all his talent, has featured far more frequently from the bench. Kim Min-woo’s departure, despite his quality, is also unlikely to impact the team greatly. Sangju have two other reliable options at left wing-back, the speedy former Ligue 2 player Kim Kyung-joong, and Pohang's Kang Sang-woo, who has made an instant impact since joining the team, scoring three goals in August.

Sangju’s season, therefore, arguably rests on how well the team copes without Yoon Bit-garam. The former Yanbian Funde player is one of Korea’s most talented midfielders, a playmaker who can single-handedly turn a match on its head with a moment of quality. He has eight goals and four assists so far this season, and for a glimpse of how his absence might affect the team you need look no further than last weekend's 5-1 mauling by Ulsan when Yoon was suspended.

Yoon will be missed, undoubtedly, but it would be unfair to judge the team solely on one result against the K-League's top team. Besides, there is one man in Sangju's ranks who might be ready to step up in Yoon's place.

[LISTEN: KLU Pod | U20 World Cup Wrap & Mixed Zone Interviews]

Ryu Seung-woo: The Natural Successor?

Ryu Seung-woo celebrates a goal for Jeju United last season.
Ryu Seung-woo was once considered a rising star of Korean football. He was a regular for the national youth teams, scoring in twice in 2013's U20 World Cup, twice more in 2016's AFC U23 Championship (where Korea were beaten in the final by Japan), and three times in the Olympics the same year.

Formerly on the books of Bayer Leverkusen, Ryu is now 25 years old and his career has somewhat stalled in recent years. He returned to Korea in 2017 after a spell in Hungary but struggled to nail down a starting spot for Jeju United.

There are signs, however, that he might still fulfil his early potential. A lively performance in the win over Pohang two weeks ago showed that he has the quality to shine in this league, and his creativity in an attacking midfield position is just what Sangju will need after Yoon Bit-garam's departure.

If there’s one coach that can get the best out of Ryu, it’s Kim Tae-won. One only has to look at the likes of Park Yong-ji to see that Kim is an excellent man-manager, capable of developing mercurial journeymen into consistent performers. If Ryu can win Kim's trust and shine in this team of worker ants, Sangju may not collapse as completely as many predict.

Verdict

The loss of several first teamers, most notably Kim Min-woo and Yoon Bit-garam, will of course affect the team. Sangju Sangmu are far greater than the sum of their parts, however. In Kim Tae-wan they have one of Korea’s most promising managers, and there is enough quality and cohesion in this squad to maintain their solid form. With Yoon Bo-sang in goal and Park Yong-ji continuing to thrive up front, Sangju will continue to pick up points against the teams around them.

Ultimately their final standing in the league will come down to whether they can hold their position in the top half when the split comes six Gameweeks later. The next six league games will define their season, but a favourable FA Cup tie to Daejeon Korail is also on the horizon.

Nobody would be surprised if this team struggles when their big names are discharged in three weeks, but there's still a great chance that Sangju could have their best ever season in 2019. Their previous best was 6th place with 43 points in 2016, only five points more than their current tally, and they could even add a trophy to that this year. With Kim Tae-won at the helm, write them off at your peril.



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