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2019 Season Review: Sangju Sangmu FC

Military side Sangju Sangmu can look back on 2019 with pride after a season that surprised many neutrals. A thrilling run to the FA Cup semi-finals and a record points tally were the highlights of a consistent season that showed once again why Kim Tae-wan is one of the most promising managers in Korean football.

What Went Well 

Two years after narrowly avoiding relegation with a penalty shootout victory over Busan IPark, Kim Tae-wan led Sangju to their highest points tally in history in 2019. They accumulated 55 points (their previous best being 43 points in 2016) and were unlucky not to finish in the top half of the split, trailing 6th-placed Gangwon only on goal difference at the end of the regular season. Eventually they ran out comfortable winners of the bottom six, finishing seven points above Suwon Bluewings.

Much of Sangju’s success can be attributed to coach Kim. He built a team around the strong central spine of Kwon Wan-kyu, Yoon Bit-garam, and Park Yong-ji, settling a starting XI early in the season and rotating only when necessary. His players knew their roles inside out, and as a result Sangju were one of the most cohesive and hard-working units in the league.

Sangju started the season in excellent form, winning their three opening games, and they only lost two consecutive games on one occasion all year. At one stage in August, after another run of three straight wins, they were within two points of the Asian Champions League places.

Sangju also enjoyed a thrilling run to the FA Cup semi-finals, seeing off the likes of Seongnam and Jeju United before eventually being beaten on a rain-soaked night by heroic minnows Daejeon Korail.

For a team widely expected to be in a relegation dogfight, Sangju fans could hardly have asked for a better season.

What Didn't Go Well

Sangju’s results were generally consistent throughout the season, but after missing out on the top six so narrowly, questions have to be asked about their defensive record. 53 goals were conceded in total, and only the bottom three teams shipped more. Heavy summer defeats to Gangwon and Ulsan proved costly, as only goal difference prevented Sangju from finishing above Gangwon and having a realistic crack at the top four.

Sangju will also rue the missed opportunity in the cup after such an excellent run. On paper, Sangju were the in-form team of the final four and the loss to Korail prevented a golden chance at what would have been historic silverware for the club.

Many will point to September’s exodus of players as the reason behind Sangju’s failed trophy bid. The likes of Yoon Bit-garam and Kim Min-woo missed the two-legged semi-final having returned to their parent clubs following the completion of their military service. Their absence was keenly felt in the first few games following their departures.

Young Player of the Year

Due to their unique method of recruitment, Sangju had no regular starters under 23 years old this season. There are one or two younger players who deserve a mention, however.

Lee Gyu-seong (right) played over 3,000 minutes for Sangju this year.

25 year-old Lee Gyu-seong was virtually an ever-present at the base of Sangju’s midfield, playing more minutes than any other player in the squad. He showed composure and positivity in possession, as well as good defensive instincts and excellent work-rate. His industry and positional sense were vital in a midfield partnership with the more attack-minded Yoon Bit-garam.

24 year-old Kim Gun-hee is another player who shone, albeit for only the tail-end of the season. After missing over a year of football through injury, Kim finally made his Sangju debut in September, and he hit the ground running. The striker scored eight goals in ten games as Sangju finished the season strongly, making Kim the player with the best goals-per-minute ratio in the top division. Had he been fit earlier in the year, who knows where Sangju might have finished. Parent club Suwon Bluewings could have a breakthrough star in their squad when the new season begins. 

Team MVP

There were a few star performers for Sangju this year. Central defender Kwon Wan-kyu was excellent at the back, while Yoon Bo-sang proved himself to be one of Korea’s finest shot-stoppers in goal. Kim Min-woo was impressive on the left wing, and for much of the season almost everything good about Sangju came through Yoon Bit-garam. The international midfielder scored eight goals and was highly influential, but he’s pipped to the MVP award by forward Park Yong-ji.

Park played 36 times for Sangju in 2019 and racked up a career-high 12 goals. For a wing-forward who had previously been regarded as an inconsistent journeyman, it was a big improvement. In fact, K League 1 MVP Kim Bo-kyung was the only Korean player to score more goals in the top division this year (13).

Park had previously had spells at Ulsan, Busan, Seongnam, and Incheon, but had never nailed down a starting spot, nor scored more than four goals in one season. Sangju coach Kim Tae-wan showed faith in Park by giving him a run of games as a centre forward, and the 27 year-old never looked back. Park has pace and is a tidy dribbler, but it was his improved finishing which made such a difference to Sangju this year. He will return to parent club Incheon next season with a much enhanced reputation.

Most Disappointing Player

Sim Dong-woon didn’t have a particularly bad season, but he’s such a talented player that his contribution to Sangju’s season has to go down as underwhelming. Sim often found himself behind Park Yong-ji and Song Si-woo in the pecking order in Sangju’s front line, and the 29 year-old only made four starts in 2019 before returning to Pohang in September.

His blistering pace made him a useful substitute and he chipped in with two goals, but Sim would have expected to have been more impactful, especially as he scored eight or more league goals in each of the three years prior to this season.

Most Important Decision of the Off Season

The biggest decisions of the winter may have already been made, as the club have already announced the 16 players recruited to the club for next year’s challenge. The vast majority of Sangju’s key players (including Park Yong-ji, Yoon Bo-sang, Kwon Wan-kyu, and Kim Gun-hee) will return to their parent clubs at the turn of the year, so Sangju’s fortunes next season will rest largely on the shoulders of the new signings.

Among the 2020 intake are two Jeonbuk players with international experience. Winger Moon Seon-min was the league’s top assist maker this year and could shine next season as Sangju’s main man, while Kwon Kyung-won is a top-drawer central defender who will bring poise and leadership to the back line.

Goalkeepers Lee Chang-geun (from Jeju United) and Choi Cheol-won (Bucheon 1995) are solid options to replace Yoon Bo-sang, while Moon Chang-jin (Incheon United), Park Yong-woo and Lee Myung-jae (both from Ulsan Hyundai) are proven performers. Youngsters such as Oh Se-hun (Ulsan) and Lee Keun-ho (Jeonbuk) will also be worth keeping an eye on.

Kim Tae-wan is likely to start the season fielding his current crop of players, which includes talents such as Ryu Seung-woo, Lee Chan-dong, and Kang Sang-woo, before introducing the new recruits. How quickly the new squad members take to Kim’s system will be crucial to Sangju’s chances of success in 2020, but if Kim’s man-management skills are anything to go by, Sangju fans could be in for another exciting year.

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