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2021 Ulsan Hyundai Season Preview

Ulsan Hyundai finally got a taste of glory when they lifted the AFC Champions League last December, and they will be looking to build on that achievement with some long-awaited domestic success in 2021. After finishing runners-up twice in a row, Ulsan fans are hoping that Korean football legend Hong Myung-bo can lead the Horangi (Tigers) to the title in his first season as a K League manager. Ulsan columnist Dan Croydon gives his thoughts ahead of the 2021 K League 1 campaign

Last Season

17 wins, 6 draws, 4 losses (Finished 2nd in K League)
FA Cup: Runners-up
AFC Champions League: Champions

What Happened?

The end of last year's domestic campaign probably feels like a lifetime ago for followers of Ulsan Hyundai. The south coast club have gone through two hotel bubbles in Qatar, won their second AFC Champions League title and changed their entire coaching staff -- all within the space of a few months.

But to understand Ulsan's upheaval during the off-season, it is important to remember their disappointing end to the domestic campaign. For the second year in a row, post-split losses to rivals Jeonbuk and Pohang, as well as a costly draw in Daegu, meant Kim Do-hoon's men let another golden chance of domestic glory slip through their grasp.


Notable Moves

So the Ulsan board finally decided to call time on Kim Do-hoon's reign after four years in charge at Munsu Stadium. His replacement is former national team manager, Olympic Bronze medallist and captain of South Korea's World Cup 2002 giant-killing team, Hong Myung-bo

Hong has spent most of his post-playing career in and around the national team; in fact, this will be his first foray into K League management. With expectations on the south coast as high as ever, Hong will have to use all of his tactical know-how to get the results the club expect, while also learning the day-to-day rigours of club management as he goes. 

Hong has immediately set about remedying the problems he saw at the tail-end of last season, namely an over-reliance on veteran players and a bloated first team squad.  Famous but fringe characters Park Joo-ho, Jeong Dong-ho and Yun Young-sun have all moved to Suwon FC, while Bjorn Johnsen has joined Montreal Impact in the MLS.

More controversially, Hong saw fit not to offer a new contract to last year's record-setting top scorer Junior Negrao as part of the manager's decision to transition towards a younger, more dynamic squad.

A noble goal, but couple that with the loss midfield captain Shin Jin-ho to Pohang and defender Jung Seung-hyun's decision to serve out his military duties, and Ulsan will have a very different looking spine to the team when their season kicks off on March 1st.  

KLU Patreon

In comes Austrian striker Lukas Hinterseer from Hamburger SV to fill the considerable gap left by Junior. Hinterseer has spent most of his career in the German second division, although he did help the unfancied FC Ingolstadt to their first ever promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016. 

Hinterseer will be joined in attack by Gangwon's Kim Ji-hyun, who was K League 1 Young Player of the Year in 2019; and Busan's Lee Dong-jun (above), who was K League 2 MVP that same year. 

Hong has rounded off his attacking options by signing talented Georgian midfielder Valeri 'Vako' Qazaishvili (photoshopped below) who spent four years at San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS. Vako's ability to create goals out of nothing may be precisely what the Horangi need to unlock the more stubbornly defensive K League sides.

Finally, it may not be a new signing, but Ulsan fans will be happy to hear international midfielder Lee Dong-gyeong has signed a new contract with the club. The 23-year-old Ulsan academy graduate was the subject of constant transfer rumours under Kim Do-hoon, but the new man in charge at Munsu was swift to tie Lee down for two more years with the promise of more consistent first team minutes.


 Key Player 

Dave Bulthuis
It's the hard tackling defender's third year in Korea. He is now the senior foreign player and will responsible for setting the tone for the incoming foreign talent. Bulthuis was an integral part of the Ulsan defence that conceded the second fewest goals in the league last year, but had the occasion problem with ill-discipline in the big matches. 

For example, Bulthuis should be careful not to replicate his FA Cup Final dust-up with Shin Hyung-min, particularly as the veteran midfielder is now his teammate having made the switch from Jeonju to Ulsan in the off-season.

A few honourable mentions in Ulsan's star-studded squad: goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo will be as reliable as ever between the sticks, Won Du-jae should continue to grow into the international class holding midfielder we all expect him to become and Yoon Bit-garam looks to have soaked up a lot of confidence during the team's triumphant trips to Qatar to the point where he now looks amongst the best players in the league.   

Young Player to Watch

Kim Tae-hyeon

The 20-year-old centrehalf looks set to make the step up to Ulsan's first team having spent last season on loan at Seoul E-Land in the K League 2 along with fellow U23 international Lee Sang-min. But while Hong Myung-bo was happy to let Lee Sang-min join the Leopards on a permanent basis, he was quick to ensure the services of Kim Tae-hyeon for the coming season.  

Kim is likely to get minutes too as Ulsan have not signed a replacement for Jung Seung-hyun, leaving just Dave Bulthuis and Kim Ki-hee as the recognised centrebacks. 

Biggest Question 

Can Hong's more youthful side gel quick enough? 

Hong has a squad that should be the envy of many a K League manager. Their first eleven may even be the best in the league on paper. Hong has worked quickly to put his stamp on the squad and may well have achieved a better balance between youthful exuberance and battle worn experience, which should ensure the Tigers have something left in the tank for the decisive weeks of the campaign. 

But there is no doubt that there will be teething problems along the way. Ulsan should be able to stand up to their title rivals in a head-to-head, but they are more likely to drop points against the other sides than they were under Kim Do-hoon, especially early in the season.  

Reason to Watch 

Ulsan remain the most viable rival for Jeonbuk's crown. While other teams have strengthened in some key areas, only the Horangi have the quality throughout their squad to push for top spot. After all, Jeonbuk may be the best team in Korea, but Ulsan are the best team in Asia.

You can also listen to the K League United podcast for more season preview episodes as well as predictions from expert fans and up-to-date transfer news -- everything you need to be ready for the big kick off on Feb 27th.


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