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2020 Season Preview: Ulsan Hyundai

Ulsan Hyundai are back for 2020 at the newly-renovated Munsu Stadium with some exciting new faces in the squad and the same old manager at the helm. Despite the heartbreak of last Decemeber, some quality signings and promising preseason results have brought renewed optimism to the Horangi faithful. Can Kim Do-hoon prove his doubters wrong this time round and bring the league title back to the South East coast? Ulsan columnist Daniel Croydon gives his thoughts ahead of the 2020 K League 1 campaign.

What Happened Last Season?

23 Wins / 10 Draws /  5 Losses , 2nd in K League 1

The Horangi made significant investments in the off season and were rewarded with much improved results on the pitch, particularly against their fellow top-half teams, giving them control of top spot for large stretches of the season.

However, just as his team got their noses in front, manager Kim Do-hoon's tendancy for self destruction came to the fore yet again. First an irate Kim talked himself into a five-match touchline ban during the crucial Autumn run-in; then he failed to prepare his team for what turned out to be two title-deciding East Coast Derbies with Pohang.

Ulsan may have ultimately come up short, again, but it is hard to be too down on the only team to come close to matching Jeonbuk in the last three years. Now, Kim Do-hoon has one year left on his contract and another strong squad, giving him one last shot at glory. Hopefully he has learnt the necessary lessons from 2019 so his team can go one better again this time.   

Notable Moves

Ulsan Hyundai knew there would be a raft of key departures at the end of 2019; both Kim Bo-kyung and Mix Diskerud finished their loan spells with the club, and it quickly became clear that neither would be signing permanent deals.  Two other first-team regulars, Park Yong-woo and Lee Myeong-jae, started their military service in Sangju, meaning the Horangi needed to be active in the transfer market for the second year running.

Overall, the acquisitions this winter look very promising. Another US-Norwegian, Bjorn Johnsen, has taken the foreigner slot vacated by Diskerud.  The 6'5" striker was signed from AZ Alkmaar after being linked to several clubs in the English Championship.  Johnsen finished second-top scorer in the Eredevise back in 2017/18 with ADO Den Haag, and has sixteen caps and five goals for his country.

Meanwhile, in one of the more surprising moves of the transfer window, Ulsan have replaced one Korean international 'keeper with another, as Kim Seung-gyu returned to Japan after only six months and one awful throw-in on the South East coast.

In his place comes Kim's current understudy and K League poster boy, Jo Hyeon-woo.  Jo was constantly linked with a switch to Europe thanks to his escapades at the 2018 World Cup, but when that move never materialised, the Horangi snapped up the 28-year-old shot stopper on a free. Jo's command of his box and superb athleticism make him the premier goalkeeper in the league.

Ulsan have also signed vastly experienced midfielders Yoon Bit-garam and Koh Myeong-jin who have made a combined 420 K League 1 appearances, while Asian Champions League winner Jung Seung-hyun has been added to a truly formidable central defense.

Likely Starting XI

Key Player 

Shin Jin-ho (Midfielder)

After losing three key members of the midfield that took the team so close to the title last year, Ulsan will be looking to one of their forgotten men to lead them this campaign.  Shin Jin-ho was signed last winter after a standout 2018 at FC Seoul. The 31-year-old settled quickly in Ulsan and contributed a goal and four assists in 24 appearances, but a season-ending knee injury in October meant he had to watch on helplessly from the sidelines as the title race heated up.

Shin Jin-ho is an experienced box-to-box midfielder with outstanding set piece delivery
Going into 2020, Kim Do-hoon has already indicated how important he believes Shin is by handing him the captaincy. The former Pohang and Emirates Club man has already begun to repay his boss by registering an assist in his first game wearing the armband, which came in the ACL opener, a 1-1 draw with FC Tokyo.

Shin is a box-to-box midfielder whose tenacity will compliment the more creative role expected of Yoon Bit-garam. If he stays fit, Shin will be the cornerstone of the Horangi's new-look midfield.

Young Player to Watch

Lee Sang-heon (Attacking Midfield/Forward)

Several standout players from Korea's successful U23 Olympic-qualifying squad currently ply their trade at Munsu Stadium.  However, while everyone should be keeping an eye Lee Dong-gyeong and Won Du-jae, neither qualify for the league's U22 rule.  They will feature in the first team this year though, and both are truly exciting prospects who will only get better playing at the top level of domestic and continental competition.

The U22 starting slot will most likely go to Lee Sang-heon, a young attacking midfield who will drop into the hole behind either Junior or Johnsen.  Lee is 21 years-old and has already made 28 appearances in the topflight, most of which came during a 2018 loan spell with Jeonnam. That campaign ultimately ended in relegation for the Dragons, with Lee's five goals touted as one of the few highlights of a miserable year.

Lee Sang-heon (L) could surprise many this season with his eye for goal
Elsewhere, Ulsan have brought 20 year-old defender Choi Jun back into the fold from Yonsei University. The left back graduated from Ulsan's Hyundai High School along with best friend Oh Se-hun and together they played an integral part in Korea's U20 team reaching last year's World Cup Final.  Keep an eye out for Choi's wicked deliveries into the box should he take the field.

Biggest Question 

Does this new squad have enough depth?
There is no doubt the Horangi have an outstanding spine to their first eleven. The club were able to replace central midfielders Mix Diskerud and Park Yong-woo with a like-for-like pair of Won Du-jae and Yoon Bit-garam, while Bjorn Johnsen and Jung Seung-hyun add competition for places in attack and defence respectively.

However, there is still a question mark over the wide areas. Last season Kim Do-hoon stuck religiously to a 4-1-4-1 formation, with two wingers cutting in to feed off the lone striker.  Two players employed in these positions have left the club⁠—Kim Bo-kyung and Hwang Il-soo⁠—and Ulsan spent a good chunk of the off season trying, unsuccessfully, to replace both.

Bjorn Johnsen will provide competition for Junior Negrao in attack, but he may need to play out wide too
Jeju's wing-forward Yun Il-lok was a great option, and looked likely to join in January, but a surprise offer from France closed that door.  Kim Do-hoon then went as far as to offer a big money contract to fairly unknown Peruvian winger Kevin Quevedo, a transfer that would have required sacrificing two-time club top scorer Junior Negrao in order to free up a foreigner slot⁠—however, the player chose to go to Brazil instead.

So, the Horangi know they lack options out wide, and the problem may get worse if rumours of Lee Dong-gyeong joining Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS turn out to be true. Of course, Kim Do-hoon always has the option of changing his tactics, perhaps employing wing backs in a 3-5-2, but that would raise a fresh set of questions.

Overall, Ulsan have signed a good mixture of quality experienced campaigners and promising young talent. But it remains unclear whether the squad has the balance and depth to compete on multiple fronts.

Reason to Watch 

After six months away, Ulsan Hyundai return home to the beautiful Munsu Stadium this season. It's never close to full, but with only the bottom tiers open it can provide a very decent atmosphere. Add to that the fantastic lake park surrounding the stadium and you have one of the best matchday experiences Korea has to offer.

On the pitch, Ulsan should be as entertaining as ever. They possess some of the most talented players in the league, but are equally well known for bringing through some of Korea's most exciting youth prospects.

Finally, if you are looking for a story, no one does drama like Kim Do-hoon's Ulsan. After years of promise and heartbreak, of coming so close to winning the title only to have it swept out from under their noses, how good would it be to finally see Ulsan Hyundai lift the K League 1 trophy? 2020 could finally ⁠be their year.     

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