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2020 Season Review: Jeju United

After just one season in the second division, Jeju United pulled away in the standings late in the campaign to secure the club's first league title in three decades and automatic promotion to K League 1 for 2021.  Nam Ki-il was appointed manager at the end of last December and immediately set to work on reviving a squad who had just tasted relegation for the first time in the team's history.  A combination of shrewd moves to strengthen the club and a unifying message to bring the group together ultimately paid dividends as the islanders finished 2020 sixteen matches unbeaten.  They return to the top flight knowing there is little pressure on them to spring out of the gate, but with momentum carrying them, they could well challenge for a top six placing.  KLU's Branko Belan looks back at the season that was. 


What Went Well

Things already began turning in the right direction at the end of last year when Nam Ki-il's appointment as manager was announced.  That was quickly followed by a revamping of the board of directors.  Then, the signings started flooding in.  Valentinos Sielis arrived from Gangwon FC; Yoon Bo-sang from Gwangju FC following the completion of his military service with Sangju Sangmu.  Joo Min-kyu came from Ulsan and a host of players were added from Seongnam FC, including Gong Min-hyun, who unknown to all would be primed for a career year.  Jung Woon returned from Gimpo Citizen in K4 and the midseason acquisition of Kim Oh-gyu, also from Gangwon turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle to guarantee the islanders' charge towards a title.

After a relatively slow start, they reeled off eight in a row unbeaten before losing for a second time to Daejeon Hana Citizen with Andre Luis scoring the winner sixteen minutes from time after both teams had traded goals earlier in the half.  That setback in July would leave them unfazed, as they never lost again for the rest of the campaign, a stretch of just over three months which saw them clinch in style at home against Seoul E-Land at the beginning of November.

When it looked as though things might take a turn for the worse when Joo picked up an injury in the final match against Bucheon FC 1995 in mid-September, there was Jin Seong-wook to pick up the scoring load, as the returnee from Sangju netted five goals from early autumn onwards, including the hammer blow against Suwon FC a quarter of an hour from time which put Jeju six points clear, and then the eventual winner against E-Land a week later to seal the league and automatic promotion.

Gong Min-hyun had a career year, leading the team with nine goals and three assists.
When the dust settled, Nam Ki-il expectedly and deservedly took home Manager of the Year honors and seven United players were named to the 2020 K League 2 Best XI.  Lee Dong-ryul also took home Young Player of the Year honors.  Despite only playing in 14 matches (the minimum requirement to be considered for the award), he notched five goals and three assists to distance himself from the competition.  Jeju also finished the season with the best defensive record and the top goal difference in the division, quite an achievement considering they had shipped 72 goals on their way to relegation in 2019.  

Perhaps the biggest reason for this was the return of Jung Woon, who began the season at left back but reverted to anchor in a back three.  It paid off hugely as the islanders became relentless building out of the back.  Jeju outscored opponents 18-5 over the last nine matches on the schedule.  Gong Min-hyun finished with nine goals and three assists.  Joo Min-kyu finished with eight goals and two assists.  Kim Young-wook led the league in assists and Oh Seung-hoon claimed nine clean sheets on the road to Jeju's most successful season ever.

What Didn't Go Well

Valentinos Sielis was brought in from Gangwon FC to help strengthen a weak Jeju back line in the winter transfer window thanks to his strong performances for the side in the northeast.  He looked fit and ready to be a major contributing factor for his new club, but an injury in preseason set him back and his playing time was extremely limited.  He appeared in all three of Jeju's FA Cup matches, but only three times in the league, with just one of them being a full ninety minute performance.  Fitness and good performances from other squad players were the likely cause.

On paper, Jeju looked to be one of the favorites to win the league when play finally kicked off at the beginning of May.  They did not start well, however, salvaging only a draw against Seoul E-Land in their opening match with Joo converting from the penalty spot and Won Ki-jong responding for the visitors in the second half.  Kim Ju-won scored the only goal of the match in their loss to Jeonnam Dragons at Gwangyang the following week after which they squandered a two goal advantage against Daejeon thanks in large part by Lee Chang-min's sending off for a rash challenge.  

The islanders secured only one of a possible nine points from their first three matches with their first rivalry fixture against Bucheon FC 1995 on the horizon.  Joo's injury time header would then change the course for the rest of the season.

Young Player of the Year

Lee Dong-ryul

Lee Dong-ryul scored five goals and added three assists en route to being named the Young Player of the Year for the 2020 campaign.
He only appeared fourteen times for the club in 2020, but in that short time, became an instant impact player.  He did not begin to see significant action until the end of August, but when he finally got his chance, he took it.  In only his third appearance for the club, he scored against Bucheon in a 4-0 rout, to seal Jeju's clean sweep of their mainland city rivals.  He followed that up with his first career brace against FC Anyang in a 3-1 win.  He then collected three assists in successive matches against Gyeongnam FC, a 3-3 draw, and back-to-back 2-0 clean sheet victories against Daejeon and Bucheon.

His career moment would come in the biggest match of the year against Suwon FC when he scored the first goal in the 2-0 win and he would then round out with his fifth of the year in the latter stages against Chungnam Asan from the penalty spot on the final matchday with the final kick of the ball.

The product of the Jeju youth system did not see much action as a rookie, but based on his return this year, it is likely he will see more time on the pitch next season.  A burner on the wing, he has the ability to beat defenders with his speed and showed a natural instinct for the ball with his finishing.  If 2020 is an indicator of what is to come, he certainly has a bright future ahead of him.  Winning the Young Player of the Year award likely will not go to his head, but make him even more hungry for success as his career progresses.

Team MVP

Jung Woon

Jung Woon's return to the club co-incided with Jeju's successful title run this season.
One of the most notable players in the club's recent history, his return from Gimpo Citizen after the completion of his military service dramatically changed Jeju's fortunes.  To compare and contrast, when he left the club in June 2018 during the World Cup break, the islanders were sitting third in the table on 21 points.  When play resumed in July, they defeated Suwon Samsung Bluewings, nudging them up to second, then proceeded to go winless until the end of September, barely scraping it into the top split.

Last season could not have been worse - Jeju won all of five matches in 2019 and made the drop down a division for the first time ever.  Cho Sung-hwan resigned after the first nine matches without securing a single win, and Choi Yun-kyum won only four more matches the rest of the way after beating Gyeongnam FC on his managing debut where he spent much of his playing career.

Nam Ki-il knew Jung would be a critical piece to the team's success this year and he was right.  Not only was he able to make a successful transition from left back to center back, he also scored two critical goals late in the season, an equalizer against Ansan Greeners deep into injury time saving Jeju from defeat on October 11th, then heading home against Gyeongnam a week later to seal all three points.

Several players on the team credit him for being a leading figure and contributing a great deal to the team's championship success this year.  His discipline and ethic wore off on the younger players in the squad and it led to excellent results with the hope of even more to come next season.  If not for him, Jeju would be spending a second season in K 2.

Most Important Decision of the Off-Season

It is difficult to pinpoint what needs to be changed for a club and an organization for whom everything seemed to go right on their way to a title, the first in thirty years.  But, there is one glaring consideration that must be addressed as soon as possible: senior leadership in the squad.  That was the precise reason why Jung Jo-gook was brought to the team in the winter transfer window, primarily because it was the one key component lacking in the side on the way to the islanders being relegated a season before.

Jung Jo-gook will go down as one of the most legendary players in K League history, becoming a member of the vaunted "150 Club" this season after he converted a penalty against Chungnam Asan in the first meeting between the teams this season.  He will also be fondly remembered for his match-winning goal in the third round of the FA Cup against Seoul E-Land, which came in the 117th minute in extra time to send the islanders on.

Three times lucky: A third title for Jung Jo-gook and a third team promoted for Nam Ki-il.
The veteran retires with three K League titles to his credit, with FC Seoul in 2010 and 2012 and this year with Jeju.  He also won the FA Cup with the capital side in 2015, and the now-defunct League Cup in 2006 and 2010.  He was the K League's top scorer in 2016 en route to being named the MVP while with Gwangju FC, where he also played for Nam, so the manager knows it will be difficult to replace his worth.  

That leaves Oh Seung-hoon and Kwon Han-jin, both 32 years of age, as the oldest players in the squad, but it would not be a surprise to see the team hit the market to bring in a replacement who could fill a similar role.  Perhaps again it could be a player who the manager has some familiarity with.  Time will tell, but K League 1 was very competitive this year, and with the gap in parity starting to close, Jeju will have to be ready to contend with much tougher competition in 2021.     

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