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2024 Season Preview: Can FC Seoul return to prominence?

A question that has been asked about FC Seoul for the last seven of eight years: 'Can the club bet back to challenging for honours?' There's reason to be optimistic, though, as Kim Gi-dong has been appointed as the club's new manager, former Manchester United and England star Jesse Lingard has signed, and Ki Sung-yueng has put pen to paper on a new contract. So, after four years of bottom-half finishes, can this be Seoul's year?

It's been seven years since FC Seoul last won a K League title and four years since this stumbling giant finished in the top half of the table. For a club of this size, with the support it gets, it ought to be doing better. The 2024 season will be Seoul's 20th at Seoul World Cup Stadium, marking 20 years of the 'FC Seoul' era. Can they do so with a trophy or by getting back to where they belong?

What happened last season?

W14, D13, L11 - 7th

The 2-0 loss to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in Round 33 was a sliding doors moment for FC Seoul, and Jeonbuk too perhaps to some degree. If Seoul had won that match they'd have been in the top half, caretaker Kim Jin-kyu would have delivered on his brief and given himself an excellent chance of getting the job full-time, and new contracts would have been given to certain players. Instead, Seoul fell into the bottom half for the sixth season out of the last seven. Jeonbuk went on to clinch a place in the AFC Champions League 2 while Seoul decided to let club captain Osmar leave and look for a new manager.

Seoul got off to a good start last season, as they have often done over the last few years. But it proved to be yet another false dawn. A 2-2 draw at home to Daegu FC in August proved to be An Ik-soo's last match in charge - it had capped off a period of just two wins in 13 matches and An had a pre-written statement to hand on an iPad which he read out in the post-match press conference. 

At the time, Seoul were sat fourth in the table and so the season could still have been salvaged under Kim Jin-kyu who was placed in caretaker charge. Kim was at the helm for 10 matches, winning four, drawing three, and losing three - including a home Super Match loss to the Bluewings. Seoul ended the campaign comfortably in seventh place, four points clear of Daejeon, after a record of 14 wins, 13 draws, and 11 losses. A total of 63 goals scored was the joint-most in the division along with Ulsan.

Winter Transfer Business

Image via FC Seoul Facebook

FC Seoul haven't been all that busy in the transfer market, certainly not in terms of how many new players have come through the door. Most of the club's business this winter has been replacing those who've left and tying players down to new contracts. Na Sang-ho departed on a free to join newly-promoted J1 League side Machida Zelvia, Osmar has joined Seoul E-Land after not being offered a new deal, Park Soo-il has left for military service, Bjørn Johnsen left after six months with the club, Ji Dong-won has joined Suwon FC, and Go Yo-han has retired.

Aleksandar Paločević, Baek Jong-beom, and eventually Ki Sung-yueng, signed new deals, as the standout first-team regulars, as did Hwang Hyun-soo and Paik Sang-hoon, while Willyan's loan from Daejeon was made permanent. 

In terms of new faces, though, it's been limited to right wingback Choi Jun from Busan and defensive midfielder Ryu Jae-moon from Jeonbuk. Oh, and an English winger by the name of Jesse Lingard has also signed. Seoul's squad was already bloated and has a lot of forward players and central midfielders, the only real area that needed strengthening was centre back.

Existing Squad and Key Players

Park Dong-jin and Jung Han-min have returned from their loans with Busan and Seongnam respectively. Cho Young-wook is back from military service having earned an early exemption at the Asian Games last September. It's a big year for Cho, now 24, to kick on and find a position that suits him. 

Seoul are well stocked for wingers and attacking midfielders but are still lacking at centre back. It is perhaps the only area of the pitch where they are short of numbers and quality which is perhaps why Hwang Hyun-soo was given a new deal and Kwon Wan-kyu, who was on loan from Seongnam last season, appears to have signed although there has been no official announcement. It seems as though Seoul had been in pursuit of an 'Asian quota' centre back all winter with players from the Iran, Tajikistan, and Iraq national teams pursued. Rebin Sulaka was finally unveiled on Wednesday 21st February, the day the squad returns from pre-season training in Japan. Sulaka, 31, left Swedish top-flight outfit Brommapojkarna last month where he had spent around six months. Before that, Sulaka had been on the books of Thai giants Buriram United where he won two league titles, two Thai cups, and two Thai League Cups. He's also made 25 caps for Iraq and featured in all four of the team's 2023 AFC Asian Cup matches.

The spine or basic skeleton of of the team will likely be Baek Jong-beom, Choi Jun, Kim Ju-sung, Lee Tae-seok, Ki Sung-yeung, Ryu Jae-moon or Lee Seung-mo, Paločević, and Iljutcenko or Cho Young-wook with Willyan, Lingard, Kang Seong-jin, and Lim Sang-hyub the wide options. FC Seoul have a huge squad, though, and It's a big season for the likes of Han Seung-gyu, Paik Sang-hoon, Lee Si-young, and Kim Gyeong-min.

Major Winter Recruits

Jessie Lingard, winger (Free transfer)
Ryu Jae-moon, defensive midfielder (Jeonbuk)
Choi Jun, right back (Busan)
Rebin Sulaka, centre back (Iraq)

Foreign Player Summary

Jesse Lingard, winger (England)
Stanislav Iljutcenko, striker (Russia)
Aleksandar Paločević, attacking midfielder (Serbia)
Willyan, winger (Brazil)
Rebin Sulaka, centre back (Iraq)

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Key Player

Ki Sung-yueng

He'll pull the strings and set (maintain) the standards; his role is huge both on and off the pitch. Even at the age of 35, as one of the few 80s-born players left in the league, Ki Sung-yueng is hugely important to FC Seoul. In the position he plays, as a deep defensive midfielder who can drop it on a sixpence from anywhere, as long as he gets some of the younger legs around him to do the running, Ki can keep Seoul ticking over. He penned a new contract over the winter which is believed to be a two-year deal with the option of a third. It's likely to be his very last in football and so the former Celtic, Swansea, Sunderland, and Newcastle midfielder will be keen to end his career on a high and get this FC Seoul side challenging for honours again.

[READ: "I've always thought about the team" - Willyan]

Young Player to Watch

Kang Seong-jin

Kang Seong-jin needs to have something of a comeback year. Being just 20 years old still, the winger qualifies as an U22 player and could find himself in the starting lineup based on that alone, but he is highly-rated and needs to remind people what he can do. Last year, Kang was limited to just seven league appearances, and both of the two goals he scored came on the final day away to Daejeon. He missed the start of the campaign and large chunks of it due to international duty but with no major youth tournaments coming up this year, Kang should be fit and ready to go. He's a quick and skillful winger who, despite being left footed, likes to play off the right and cut in.

Biggest Question

Can Kim Gi-dong get the best out of his former Pohang stars?

The key will be how Kim Gi-dong gets the best out of players he's worked with before, Paločević and Iljutcenko in particular. Paločević was deployed as the central attacking midfielder in a three behind Iljutcenko at Pohang. For FC Seoul, Paločević has mostly played as a central midfielder in a four or, sometimes, as a second striker. Iljutcenko has had a strange Seoul career so far but if anyone can get the best out of a proven K League striker then it's his former Pohang boss and doing so might just be the difference in turning Seoul into ACL challengers. The only concern will be how all four of FC Seoul's non-Asian foreigners fit in and who will be sacrificed. If Lingard isn't fit to start the season then that might help ease any selection headaches in the short term. 

Reason to Watch & Realistic Target for 2024

Jesse Lingard - the most high-profile foreigner to move to K League - is one reason to watch. Kim Gi-dong taking over and inheriting a handful of players he's managed - and got the best out of - at Pohang is another. This has to be a season where Seoul kick on and get back to where they feel they belong. AFC Champions League qualification, whether that be ACLE or ACL2, has to be the target and that is well within their reach. Seoul also have a deep and talented squad and so how Kim Gi-dong works out his best XI and system will be something to keep an eye on.

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