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2024 Season Preview: Can Incheon United make it three in a row?

After nearly a decade of consistently finishing in the lower half of the table, Incheon United have achieved back-to-back top-six finishes. Although they narrowly missed out on continental qualification in 2023, an exciting Champions League campaign coupled with some impressive performances have instilled high hopes within the Incheon camp of reclaiming a coveted spot among Asia's elite in 2024.

Last Season

14 wins, 14 draws, 10 defeats; 5th position

What Happened?

Incheon began last year with high hopes following their fourth-place finish in 2022 but managed only one win in the opening six games and two in the first nine. However, as spring transitioned into summer, the team hit their stride, transforming defeats and draws into draws and wins. Notable victories included triumphs over Daejeon Hana Citizen, Ulsan Hyundai, and FC Seoul.

The summer also marked the return of Montenegrin striker Stefan Mugoša after a tumultuous year in Japan's J.League. A streak of eight wins and four draws in the final 14 rounds of the K League propelled Incheon to a 6th-place finish, edging out local rivals FC Seoul by a single point for the last spot in Final A.

In the last five rounds of the 2023 K League season, Incheon suffered just one defeat, on the final day against Daegu FC. Despite fielding mostly younger players, the team secured a second victory over league champions Ulsan Hyundai and defeated Gwangju, culminating in an entertaining conclusion to the season.

During the final half of the season, the team had to split their focus between league games, and their debut in the Asian Champions League. The ACL campaign began in July with a 3-1 qualifying round win over Hai Phong FC of Vietnam. Although they secured home-and-away victories against Japanese champions Yokohama and Filipino outfit Kaya FC-Iloilo in the group stages, heavy losses to Shandong Taishan ultimately halted Incheon's progress to the knockout stages.

Despite falling short of ACL football for 2024, last season should be deemed a success. The team showcased attractive, attacking football, secured victories over prominent teams, and demonstrated their ability to compete with some of Asia's elite clubs.

Notable Moves

The off-season has been relatively quiet in terms of recruitment activity. Former Blue-Black defender Matej Jonjic has made a return to the club on a free transfer, re-joining eight years after his departure to J.League side Cerezo Osaka. Additionally, former Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Daejeon Hana Citizen goalkeeper Lee Beomsoo has been signed from Bucheon FC, while young goalkeeping prospect Seong Yoonsu has also joined the club.

The most notable transfer of the season has been Hernandes' departure to Jeonbuk, in a deal reportedly valued at around $1.5 million, payable in instalments. Speculation arose when he did not join the squad for pre-season training in Thailand, with the transfer being finalised at the end of January. He marked his debut for his new club with a goal in the ACL R16 first-leg victory over Pohang Steelers.

While Hernandes' departure was expected, the exit of Korea U22 National Team player Park Hyunbin was a surprise and caught many off-guard. He departed the club for a fee of approximately $200,000, joining K League 2 side Bucheon FC. Another departure was Kim Daejung, whose contract had expired. Initially slated to leave last winter, he signed a one-year extension to provide cover for the first team but has now made a move to Cheonan City.

In a scenario typical of many seasons, Incheon have seen two players depart on military service loans. Unusually, however, both are first-team goalkeepers. Kim Dongheon is set to face Incheon next season as he joins the newly-promoted Gimcheon Sangmu in K League 1, while Lee Taehee has transferred to K4 team Geoje Citizen. Both loans will last for 18 months.

Key Player 

Gerso Fernandes

While Stefan Mugoša's return to the club captured the headlines off the field, it was Gerso's on-field performances that primarily contributed to the club's success in 2023. With ten goals and nine assists, he emerged as Incheon's most potent player in his debut season with the club. While his on-field chemistry with Hernandes was evident, he also displayed glimpses of a similar understanding with Mugoša. The potential development of this relationship will be intriguing this year, especially now that the Montenegrin is back to full fitness.

Young Player to Watch

Park Seungho

The Final Round of K League 2023 provided a glimpse into the future of Incheon United, with the boss Jo Sunghwan electing to give debuts to several U22 players. The likes of Choi Woojin and Kim Gunhee looked almost alarmingly adept for rookies, but Korea U22 international Park Seungho is the one who truly stood out. Featuring in all five of the club's Final Round games, scoring a superb volley against champions Ulsan Hyundai and even getting a good amount of game time (and a goal) in the Champions League, it shows that the Incheon hierarchy sees something in Park. He featured 15 times for the club last season, scoring twice. He'll look to cement a starting berth this season - and with Hernandes gone, he should have the opportunity.

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Biggest Question 

Can Incheon return to Asia?

With the restructuring of AFC continental competitions, four slots are now available in the newly-named AFC Champions League Elite and the newly-established AFC Champions League 2. As an increasing number of clubs set their sights on securing these coveted positions, the competition for them intensifies with each passing year. Incheon, having already experienced a taste of continental football, are determined to maintain their presence in this arena. Whether it entails winning the FA Cup or securing a top-three finish in the league, participating in continental football remains the club's primary objective. Incheon narrowly missed out on qualification last year, with a fifth-place finish falling just short of securing an ACL2 spot. This year, the motivation will be there to go one better.

Reason to Watch 

Already regarded as one of the better true football stadiums in the country, the club has extended the standing section this year, meaning the atmosphere is likely to be even louder. Additionally, the product on the pitch is improving year-on-year and for only 14,000 won (~$10), it's great value for neutrals. The beer is cheap, the football is fun and there's even a foreign fan section behind the home goal that is pretty accommodating.

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