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2020 Season Review: Sangju Sangmu FC

In their final season under the moniker of Sangju Sangmu FC, Korea’s premier military side again exceeded expectations under the leadership of Kim Tae-wan. Despite an impressive fourth-place finish, however, 2020 ended in an enforced relegation for the Soldiers - an outcome that didn’t do justice to the efforts of the club’s players and staff.

What Went Well

Kim Tae-wan is well known for his organised and disciplined teams, and his 2020 Sangju outfit was no different. Sangju were masters of the 1-0 win this year, with eight wins by that scoreline (alongside a further three 2-0 victories). Defensive stability was complemented by a well-drilled midfield, and once again Kim Tae-wan brought the best out of players with previously untapped potential.

Left back Kang Sang-woo was transformed into a prolific winger; Han Suk-jong became an influential leader in midfield; Lee Chang-geun earned a national team call-up after an impressive season between the sticks; and Ahn Tae-hyun developed into one of the league’s most consistent full backs.

Alongside established talent like defender Kwon Kyung-won and midfielder Park Yong-woo, Sangju remained a hard-to-beat unit for much of the season. They won 50% of their games before the split, and in the entire season they were only beaten once by a team outside the eventual top three (a 2-1 defeat away to FC Seoul in August). Sangju finished the season in fourth, the club’s highest ever finish in the top division.

What Didn't Go Well

Although Sangju were generally sound defensively, they were not without their off days, and they found two definitive bogey teams in Ulsan Hyundai and Pohang Steelers. In their three encounters with Ulsan, Sangju shipped 13 goals, with a further 11 conceded to Pohang. Remarkably, the 24 goals conceded against these two sides accounted for two-thirds of the team’s goals against in the entire season (only 12 goals were conceded in the other 21 fixtures).

The defeats to Pohang were particularly harmful to Sangju’s final standing; Sangju eventually finished six points behind third-place Steelers, who beat them in all three league fixtures, as well as knocking the Soldiers out of the FA Cup.

If there was one element lacking in Kim Tae-wan’s class of 2020, it was a regular goalscorer. Winger Kang Sang-woo was the club’s leading marksman with seven goals, and no other player scored more than five. Moon Seon-min, who was expected to be the star player of the team this year, only started seven games all year, with Kim preferring to utilise the speedster off the bench.

Kim possibly viewed Moon as a luxury player, perhaps prioritising defensive stability and positional awareness over Moon’s more unpredictable talents. Kim’s failure to get the best out of one of the league’s most talented wingers is a mark against him, however, especially as the rest of the forward line struggled to find the back of the net. 

Young Player of the Year

This was the first season that Sangju Sangmu were subject to the same U23 rules as the rest of the league, and the recruitment of younger players such as Kim Bo-sub and Oh Hyun-gyu brought a fresh aspect to a team that has predominantly only featured players in their late twenties.

National team hopeful Oh Se-hun was arguably the pick of the bunch, despite missing chunks of the season through injury. Oh led the line for Sangju in 13 games, and his four goals (all scored in June and July) seemed to set the 21 year-old up for a breakthrough year in the K League 1.

Although the goals dried up and injuries affected his impact on Sangju’s season, Oh showed enough guile and power to hint at a bright career, and he has all the attributes to be a stand-out performer in the second division next season.

Team MVP

Despite only playing for the Soldiers until August (when he returned to parent club Pohang Steelers) Kang Sang woo’s impact on Sangju’s season was nothing short of extraordinary. Primarily a full back earlier in his career, Kang was transformed into a left winger by Kim Tae-wan, and for the first half of the season he was the club’s number one danger man.

Kang scored seven goals and assisted five more in his 16 appearances (a goal involvement rate of 0.75 per game). He was involved in 60% of the team’s goals before his departure, which is impressive considering he had never scored more than three goals in a single season before 2020.

Kang was sorely missed in the final third of Sangju’s season, and he even went on to score against the Soldiers on the final day of the season while kitted out in the red and black of Pohang.


Most Important Decisions of the Off-Season

Coach Kim Tae-wan seems to have perfected the process of bedding in new recruits and getting the best out of the players at his disposal. Sangju saw several players leave the club in November, including regulars Kim Jin-hyuk, Song Seung-min, and Kim Min-hyeok, but the squad is likely to be bolstered by a new batch of players this winter.

Many of the club’s biggest names (a total of 16 players including Kwon Kyung-won, Moon Seon-min, Park Yong-woo, and Lee Chang-geun) will leave the club in June of next year, so Kim Tae-wan will need to gradually ease other players into his starting lineup. Over the winter break Kim will be looking closely at the fringe players in his squad in order to determine how best to build his team for a promotion challenge.

As the club settles into its new home of Gimcheon (under their new name, Gimcheon Sangmu FC), the staff and players from Sangju have plenty of work ahead this winter. With a new band of recruits on the way, a new stadium and training facilities to adapt to, and perhaps a new group of supporters behind them, this off-season promises to be the backdrop to an exciting transition for the club. How well they settle in to their new surroundings will go a long way to determining their success in 2021’s K League 2.

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