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Analyzing Pohang's Under-22 Situation for the 2023 Season

Thanks to their strong youth system, Pohang Steelers have very rarely struggled with the K League's Under-22 rule. The end of the 2022 season is a good stopping point where K League United columnist Zeno Jo looks at who is no longer an under-22 player, who may feature regularly and some new faces we might expect to see.

The K League made a decision in 2013 that required all teams to include at least one player under the age of 23 in matchday squads. The rules have evolved significantly since then, the age is now 22, and compliance with the rule allows for teams to make up to five substitutions. 

Players born on or after January 1, 2001 will qualify as U-22 players for the 2023 season. For Pohang, this eliminates a few big names, narrowing down the list of players that could be used in this role. To start, let's look at the players who are no longer U-22 and will have to compete with the rest of the senior squad. 

Newly Over-22 Players

Lee Soo-bin (May 7, 2000)
After what seems like forever, Lee Soo-bin will no longer be considered an under-22 player. Since his professional debut in 2019, immediately after his graduation from Pohang Jecheol High School, Lee has been one of the Steelers' first choices for the under-22 rule. In 2022, he amassed 35 appearances across all competitions, starting 21 times. Sports Chosun broke the news that he is close to finalizing a transfer to Jeonbuk, and it now seems that he will be leaving. If he stayed, he would have faced stiff competition as a defensive midfielder in Kim Ki-dong's 4-2-3-1. 

Lee Ho-jae (October 14, 2000)
In 2021, Lee Ho-jae made 20 appearances, scoring twice. In 2022, he made 17 appearances, scoring three times and assisting once. His role in both seasons was contained to backup, with the starters being Lee Seung-mo in 2021 and Heo Yong-jun in 2022. Rumors of a loan move for next season come as no surprise, given the impending arrival of Zeca. A third consecutive season as the second or third-choice striker will likely impact the development of a player with great physical features for a striker. If he does stay in Pohang next year, he will likely see the field less than he did in 2022.  

Roh Kyung-ho (July 5, 2000)
Roh scored quite possibly Pohang's most iconic goal this past season, a stoppage-time screamer from outside of the box to win the Donghaean Derby at the Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium. Roh made four appearances for the Steelers this season, starting just once. His contract was set to end at the end of the season, but his name was not listed as a player who would depart the club due to contract expiration. He will likely struggle to find the field often, and is definitely not the first choice at his position. 

The Under-22 Players

Go Young-joon (July 9, 2001)
Last season, Go Young-joon featured prominently as the team's go-to under-22 player. According to Transfermarkt, he scored six goals and assisted four in 40 appearances across all competitions for the Steelers in 2022, starting in 34 of those matches and seeing no action in just one match. The attacking midfielder plays a crucial role in Kim Ki-dong's tactics, and will play given that he stays healthy, something that hasn't been an issue for him since his professional debut. He's a player that, for most teams in the K League, will see the field often even as an over-22 player.. 

Kim Ju-hwan (February 17, 2001)
Kim signed with Pohang Steelers after graduating from Pohang Jecheol High School in 2019. Across two loans, Gyeongnam FC in 2021 and FC Anyang in 2022, he's played a total of 52 matches in all competitions, playing as a right-back in formations with four defenders and as a right-wingback in 3-4-3s with Anyang. The right-back situation at Pohang has been unsteady for the past few seasons, with Shin Kwang-hoon and Park Seung-wook both filling in at different positions, and Kim Yong-hwan looking unsteady at times. Kim could see quality minutes, as a substitute or as a starter, if Kim Ki-dong wants to use two U-22 players in his starting eleven. 

Note: As of January 6, 2023, Kim Ju-hwan has signed for Cheonan City FC.

Kim Jun-ho (December 11, 2002)
Kim Ki-dong's son Jun-ho plays in the same position that his dad did, in defensive midfield. Due to his role as a U-22 player and a capable player in a midfield where depth is needed, he may even have the occasional start, if the manager is looking to not have to make any U-22 substitutions. 

Cho Jae-hun (June 29, 2003)
At the time of signing for Pohang, Cho was not even 18 years old yet, making him the Steelers' and the K League's youngest-ever transfer. Since then, he has featured just five times in all competitions, starting just three times. He is an attacking midfielder but also plays as a right-winger. Given the amount of depth in the attacking third that Pohang has next season, he may not play often but is talented enough to be one of the go-to U-22 substitutions. 

Bak Keon-woo (Aug 9, 2001)
On July 28, 2022, Pohang Steelers and Sagan Tosu finalized and announced a deal that would send Bak to the J1 League side on a five-month loan. Wanting the player to train with a Japanese team that has had a lot of Korean players in its past (Kim Min-hyeok, Hwang Seok-ho and Kim Min-woo, to name a few) as opposed to playing occasionally in the Reserves League may explain the short length of the loan. He's a right-back, meaning he may struggle to see the field if Kim Ju-hwan is the designated U-22 option at the position. Another loan move could be on the cards unless he impresses the manager in training.

The New Players

Of the six rookie signings that Pohang Steelers have made this offseason, five are U-22: Kang Hyun-jae (2002), Kim Jung-hyun (2004), Park Hyung-woo (2004), Yun Jae-un (2002) and Lee Gyu-baeg (2004). Of the five, Lee Gyu-baeg, a Pohang Jecheol High School graduate, seems to have the highest expectations, as a tall center-back with great speed and experience with the U-20 national team. If any of the rookies are to play this season, it shouldn't be expected that they will be playing anything more than short cameos off the bench. 

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