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2024 Season Preview: Are Ulsan HD Ready?

Ulsan HD K League Season Preview 2024


After easily defending their K League crown last season, a newly rebranded Ulsan side head into 2024 looking to become the third Korean club to claim three titles in a row.
Those still smirking at the divisive rebrand may be quick to point out that the Horangi have already achieved somewhat of a New Year resolution. However, with inconsistent form plaguing them towards the end of the last campaign and several notable transfers both in and out of the club this last transfer window, the picture remains far from clear for Ulsan HD supporters on how the season ahead will play out.

Ulsan's path to the title may have proved somewhat straightforward in the end. With Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors stalling from the start and Pohang not quite demonstrating nerves of steel required to keep up, Ulsan went about racking up a lead that proved unassailable. The campaign finished with the Horangi 12 points clear of the chasing pack and their fifth title secured with games in hand.

However, Ulsan did strive to once again invite challengers to keep things interesting. After weeks of relentless victories, inconsistency reared into view and made things nervy once more for a fan base that had become too used to disappointment until recent years. Ulsan finished the season with 10 defeats, the highest for a champion since 2016 when FC Seoul claimed the title after leaders Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were docked nine points.

It should be pointed out though, that when it came to the matches that mattered to maintain the grip, they held their nerve. However, a difficult AFC Champions League group stage in addition to an early FA Cup exit will still have provided manager Hong Myung-bo plenty to ponder.

It is no surprise then that decisive action has been taken in the January window to refresh the squad. After three years of service, and perhaps being one of the league’s better players last season, scoring into double digits once more, Valeri "Vako" Qazaishvili decided to call time on his stint in the Munsu. The Georgian winger made the switch to Chinese Super League side Shandong Taishan. In his place, the club has taken a gamble on Brazilian winger Kelvin from Atlético Clube Goianiense. The move sees the 26-year-old leave his native Brazil for the first time in his career, having scored six times and assisting eight in 57 appearances across all competitions for the club.

Elsewhere, there has been an exodus in defence as right-back Kim Tae-hwan has made the switch to title rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors as a free agent, whereas fellow Korean National Team member Jung Seung-hyun has decided to stay in the Middle East after the Asian Cup, signing for UAE outfit Al Wasl. There have also been rumours of left-back Seol Young-woo attracting suitors after being one of the few members of Klinsmann’s Korea squad with his stock increased.

While Hwang Seok-ho has been brought in from J.League 1's Sagan Tosu at centre-back to compete alongside Kim Kee-hee, Lim Jong-eun and league MVP Kim Young-gwon, there are question marks over how fragile the Horangi could prove in defence. 

Ulsan have also raided relegated Suwon Samsung Bluewings for Ko Seung-beom in a smart move that sees the Horangi acquire a much-praised defensive midfielder that can shore up the side in the centre of the park after perhaps being suspect much towards the end of last season. 

This boost in the centre of the park is in addition to the acquisition of Brazilian defensive midfielder Matheus Sales who has also come in from Atlético Clube Goianiense. Hong Myung-bo will hoping that having arrived alongside teammate Kelvin, the pair should be able to settle in quickly down on the East Coast.

Finally, the acquisition of former K League winger Kim Min-woo also piques interest after Kim returns to Korean shores after a couple of seasons in China plying his trade for Chengdu Rongcheng. The 33-year-old winger scored ten times during his stint in the Chinese Super League and had built up quite the reputation during his stint at Suwon Samsung Bluewings and then named Sangju Sangmu in his stint prior, operating on the fringes of the National Team.

It does mean though that Ulsan have kept their squad more to the older end of things, boasting the highest average age of players in the division. It is fair to assume that Hong Myung-bo is emphasising maintaining their winning momentum rather than making alterations to focus on the long term. 

With so much established talent at his disposal, it may prove difficult to justify his business should Ulsan fail in their objective this season, but the gamble will be worth it should they continue to claim silverware and cement the legacy of this recent squad in the division's history.

There are young talents though. For the U22 player to keep tabs on, the only player with game time that still meets the quota is midfielder Kang Yun-gu, who made 19 starts and was subbed off, you guessed it, 19 times, often as a warm-up act for Ataru Esaka. Still, here’s hoping he can improve on his average of 31 minutes a match this season.

While now a few years removed from the U22 quota, there’s also the unpolished potential of Um Won-sang who suffered from somewhat of a difficult second season under the Munsu lights, but did continue to crop up during the more important games before being controversially awarded a place in the league's best eleven at the end of the year. Um will be hoping to put in a more convincing case for his inclusion this year and, with the Korea National Team having a well-publicised managerial overall, has another chance to force his way back into contention for the Taeguk Warriors squad.

Overall, the Horangi remain very much the side to beat in this division but with the reignition of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, the potential strengthening of Seoul and the problems always posed by Pohang, keeping hold of their crown may prove far more of a challenge than last season. The biggest question remains, are Ulsan HD ready for the challenge?

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