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Writers' Chat: K League All Stars vs Vietnam U23

After a year off, the K League All-Star match is back with a different format. Instead of facing off against one another, K League is sending some of its best abroad to play the Vietnam SEA Games National Team in Hanoi this Saturday. The match marks the first All Star Game on foreign soil since Japan hosted in 2008. To better figure out what each side may want from the game, the potential for more foreign-based ASGs, and which Vietnamese internationals have the potential to make a statement, I spoke with Marc Harrison, co-host of the Hanoi Football Show and blogger at Lost Boyos.

Marc Asks, RyanAnswers

Marc Harrison: The K League All-Star game has taken many different formats over the years. Why has this one been chosen and is it a good one moving forward?

Ryan Walters: The league has made no secret about this being an opportunity to promote itself in Southeast Asia. The signing of Lương Xuân Trường by Incheon last season and the fanfare it received in his native Vietnam seemed to finally wake K League up to the potential of the SE Asian market. This match is clearly a direct result of that. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of All Star matches in most iterations. Having players pick teams to face off is a bit boring as we all know the match means nothing and the players couldn't really care less. League All Stars vs one of Europe's giants (a format MLS still uses to this day) only helps illustrate the gap between the domestic league and the foreign one they're inviting.

However, I really like the idea of having a traveling roadshow of an ASG and think this format has a lot of potential. At least in theory anyway. Sending a group of league All Stars to face off against any national team would be odd, but sending K League All Stars to face a youth national team is just bizarre. What I would much rather see is K League ASGs vs other Asian leagues. This year could be against V.League All Stars, next year Thai Premiere League, Singapore's S.League after that, and so on and so on. Not only would that make for a more entertaining (and let's face it, marketable) match, but it would also help ramp up interest for AFC Champions League, where these players have the potential to face each other again.

MH: How important is the All-Star game to Korean football fans?

RW: In all honesty... it really isn't. I think a lot of this has to do with the ever changing format and having it lumped into the middle of an already chaotically busy summer schedule. Teams in the top flight have had double game weeks for the better part of two months straight and even diehard fans are a bit burned out at the moment. At this point in the season, the last thing most fans want is a meaningless match where some of our best players could get hurt. That said, I do think the aforementioned K League vs other Asian leagues format would raise the affection for the game by putting a bit of national pride on the line.

MH: All-Star voting always throws up some unusual picks. How was this year's team selected? Who is unlucky not to be on the trip and why won't Vietnamese fans be getting Dejan Damjanović and some of the league's other foreign stars?

RW: According to a YonHap News article, "the 18 players were chosen based on data analysis of their performances this year, and that it made sure all 12 K League Classic teams would have representation." I'm not entirely sure I buy the "data analysis" aspect of it, but looking over the roster (which can be found below), I can say this certainly isn't a B-Team. These are easily some of the best players the league has to offer and I'd happily take the vast majority of them if I were starting a new club tomorrow. One name that's not on the list that could have been is Seoul winger Yun Illok. He leads the league in assists with 8 and is having a solid season, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a snub.

As for the lack of foreigners, I think it's two things. First, it's important to notice the language K Leauge chose in a similar Yonhap article. They said they want to "help promote South Korean football in Southeast Asia." For K League – and more importantly, the KFA – that means showing off players that have a shot at the Korean National Team. Players that Vietnamese fans may see when Korea comes to visit for World Cup Qualifiers or in other Asian tournaments. Personally I feel it's a lost opportunity for the league to showcase legends like Dejan, and up and coming stars like Suwon Bluewing's Jonathan, but it's not overly surprising. Secondly, I'm not sure how many foreign players would sign up for a game against a youth national team as opposed to a trip home to see family. Again, a change in format may alter their opinion, but I don't know how many are upset on missing the trip.

MH: Several young Southeast Asian players, like Thailand's Chanatip Songkrasin and Cambodia's Chan Vathanaka, have made moves to Japan in recent times, but Korea has generally overlooked the region. Would you like to see K-League clubs taking a chance on some Southeast Asian talent?

RW: I think it's a past-due step and K League may lament not scouting the region more seriously in the near future. Especially with the +1 foreigner rule allowing a 4th foreign signing if they have an Asian passport, it seems a woefully underutilized region for Korea's top flight. Getting a national team hero from any SE Asian nation into a K-League kit would help the league get exposure in a region with die hards who would love to root for a local boy in a bigger league. At the very least, tens of thousands more eyes would be on the K-League and the pride of the sport would stay in Asia. Kit sponsors and TV deals from the region could follow and K-League could position itself as a top Asian league focusing on Asian talent. With the CSL targeting overpriced European/South American mercenaries, and A-League almost completely ignoring Asian talent, signing ASEAN internationals would set K-League up to be the destination for talented players before other leagues in the region. It would then make these kind of All Star trips carry even more weight, and likely bring in more cash for both leagues involved.

MH: One Vietnamese player who has made the move to Korea is Lương Xuân Trường. 18 months on from his arrival, how is viewed by K League fans?

RW: Unfortunately injuries and being on a team stuck in a relegation battle (Incheon United) in 2016 really hampered the youngsters development last season. This year he's also struggled with injuries and has only seen the field twice for a total of 106 minutes. So, with the lack of exposure, I would say he's still largely an unknown for most K League fans. To make things worse for him, he seems to be on the wrong team yet again this year. Gangwon had a tremendous off season bringing back a slew of Korean stars like Lee Keunho, who will be making the trip to Hanoi this weekend, 2016 MVP Jung Jogook, and many others. After struggling a bit to start the season, Gangwon are now 6th in the league and fighting for the coveted Champions League spot. It's yet another team that can't really afford to mess with their chemistry too much and give the 22-year-old meaningful minutes. As someone truly hoping to see more SE Asian players in K League, I would love to see Lương transferred just one more time within the league to a perennial mid-table team who can afford to give him meaningful minutes.

Ryan Asks, Marc Answers

Ryan Walters: The benefits for K League sending its All Stars to Vietnam is a rather obvious one from this side of things: media exposure. What benefits do you see the Vietnamese U23s getting out of this?

Marc Harrison: For the U23s, there are probably two main benefits. First, they'll hopefully be getting a competitive game. This year's Vietnamese football calendar has been built around the country's U20s first appearance at the U20 World Cup and the U23s Southeast Asian Games and AFC U23 commitments. The SEA Games get underway in August, so this game is a big part of their preparations. Secondly, it's a chance for the players involved to put themselves in the shop window. Three of the squad have already played overseas and opportunities for Southeast Asian footballers to play elsewhere in Asia seem to be on the rise. A third, more general, advantage could potentially be increased interest in the local game. Any increase is likely to be minimal, but hopefully some casual local football fans or maybe some of the large Korean expat community can be tempted along to check out a V.League game.

RW: The format is a bit odd having league All Stars face off against a (youth) national team. Does the V League have an All Star Game of their own? Would a V League vs K League format play better with Vietnamese fans?

MH: It does seem an odd combination, but these U23s are a pretty experienced group. Most have already played at least one full season of first team football in the V.League and eight members of the squad featured for the full national team in their two Asian Cup qualifiers earlier this year (with several others being unused substitutes). As above, the game is being viewed very much as part of the SEA Games' preparations here.

There's no V.League All-Star equivalent at present and I'm not sure how much appetite there'd be for it. However, given the obvious benefits for both, I think anything that extends footballing ties between East and Southeast Asia should be seen as a positive. Something like cross-border All-Star games could certainly play a role in that.

RW: Who are some young stars K League fans should keep an eye on? Anyone you think could make the jump to Korea?

MH: There's talent throughout the squad. A decent start to the season didn't put an end to question marks over his finishing, but Hà Đức Chinh leads the line well. His U20s teammate Nguyễn Quang Hải who's unlikely to start for the U23s, was a first-team regular- and league champion- at just 19. He began 2017 in incredible form, but has looked tired before in more recent months

The obvious candidates for a move abroad are Nguyễn Tuấn Anh and Nguyễn Công Phượng. Both already have overseas experience, having spent 2016 on loan in Japan. Injuries hampered both their stays and fitness has continued to be an issue this year for Tuấn Anh, a talented playmaker who should partner with Gangwon FC's Lương Xuân Trường in midfield. Công Phượng hasn't lit up the V.League in the way some were expecting following his return, but his talent remains obvious. He's also in good form, scoring four goals in this month's AFC U23 qualifiers, including a great solo strike against Korea.

I think the next candidate is likely to be Vu Van Thanh and there have already been some rumours of a switch for Hoàng Anh Gia Lai's attacking full-back. He has the pace and energy to match his ability, and is a regular threat with shots from distance and set pieces.

RW: The U23s have only won 3 of their last 10 and could be looking for a spark. Do you expect them to come out strong and play for a result (even if that's just a respectable score line), or will this be more of a development opportunity?

MH: That's a somewhat misleading statistic, as several of those defeats were suffered with a different group of players. This group did start the year with a humbling 5-0 loss at home to Argentina's U20 team in April, but looked good in the AFC U23 qualifiers and only lost narrowly to Korea. With the SEA Games around the corner and qualification for the AFC U23s achieved, those involved will, of course, be looking to cement their places in the squad.

There are a lot of good foreign strikers in the V.League, but it'll be very interesting to see how the young defenders cope with experienced international forwards like Kim Shin-wook and Lee Keun-ho. Likewise, seeing how Đức Chinh, Công Phượng, and fellow attacker Nguyễn Văn Toàn play against solid but ageing defenders like Kwak Tae-hwi and Choi Hyo-jin will also provide further insight into how far these young players can take their talents.

RW: Prediction?

MH: Who knows. The K-League All-Star game I attended in 2007 finished 5-2 and I remember plenty of other ridiculous scorelines, like the 10-6 game the previous year. Then there was the Messi farce and the year Choi Yong-soo as the referee; it all seems very random. However, I'm sure the Vietnamese players will be up for it for all the reasons above. If the All-Stars take it seriously, too, it should be an entertaining game.

Whatever happens, I'm sadly not going to be there because I'm flying to Malaysia. I've really enjoyed watching these young Vietnamese players during my time here and it would have been great to once again watch two of my favourite Korean players, Choi Hyo-jin and Lee Keun-ho.

Head Coah: Hwang Sunhong (FC Seoul)
Assistants: Kim Dohoon (Ulsan), Seo Jungwon (Suwon Bluewings)
Forwards: Kim Shinwook (Jeonbuk), Lee Keunho (Gangwon), Yang Donghyun (Pohang)
Midfielders: Yeom Kihun (Suwon), Han Sangwoon (Ulsan), Son Junho (Pohang), Kim Minhyuk (Gwangju), Kim Dohyuk (Incheon), Ahn Hyunbeom (Jeju)
Defenders: Kim Jinsu (Jeonbuk), Hong Cheol (Sangju), Oh Bansuk (Jeju), Koo Jaryong (Suwon), Kwak Taehwi (FC Seoul) , Oh Beomseok (Gangwon), Choi Hyojin (Jeonnam)
Goalkeepers: Kim Hongdae (Ulsan), Cho Hyunwoo (Daegu)

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