Fresh faces dominate new K-League season

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Fresh faces dominate new K-League season

With the new Korean professional football season just around the corner, coaches and players from 16 teams in the country’s first-division league said Thursday they looked forward to putting on entertaining shows for fans.

The K-League kicks off its 2011 season on March 5 and will wrap up with a home-and-away championship series on Dec. 4.

Six of the 16 clubs have new head coaches entering the season, including the defending K-League champion, FC Seoul, which hired Hwangbo Kwan.

This is Hwangbo’s first year as a coach in the K-League. He spent a dozen years in Japan as a head coach and front office executive.

“I am nervous, excited and honored all at the same time to return to Korea to become a head coach,” said Hwangbo, a former national team midfielder, at a press conference in Seoul.

“The players all trust each other, and they get along with each other pretty well. That will add to our strength,” he added.

Hwangbo’s former national team sidekick, Hwang Sun-hong, will be the new coaching face on the Pohang Steelers’ sideline. Pohang is one of three teams Hwang played for in the K-League.

“Coming back to Pohang, [North Gyeongsang], has brought back a lot of the memories from my playing days, when we were a dominant team,” said Hwang, who scored 26 goals in 52 games for Pohang from 1993 to 1998. During his time there, Pohang grabbed an FA Cup and a K-League Cup trophy, plus two Asian Football Confederation Champions League titles.

Hwang also has a connection to former English Premier League winger Seol Ki-hyeon, who the Steelers lost to free agency this offseason. Hwang had played with Seol on the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup squad that made a surprise run to the semifinals. Hwang was keen on retaining the rights to Seol but the veteran forward signed with Ulsan Hyundai.

“We have to respect his decision,” Hwang said. “It was probably not an easy decision for him. I hope he does well with Ulsan.”

Despite the loss of a quality forward, Hwang remains optimistic and said he has plenty of talent to fill the void.

“I’ve got eyes on some young players with great potential,” he said. “My job is to nurture these players so that they can help lead Korean football.”

Chunnam Dragons coach Jeong Hae-seong, a former national team assistant, is another high-profile rookie boss.

He said his goal is to beat every one of his 15 opponents at least once.

“I know that on paper, we may be lagging behind some clubs,” Jeong said. “But it’d be more fun for the fans to see the underdog upset stronger teams.”

But for up to four weeks, Jeong will be without Ji Dong-won, the 19-year-old striker who scored a 13 goals in his rookie season last year and rose to stardom at the Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar, last month. Ji is out with a hamstring injury.

Park Kyung-hoon, the reigning K-League Coach of the Year for Jeju United, will also be shorthanded this year.

Midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, the leading scorer at the Asian Cup, has joined VfL Wolfsburg in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga. The coach of last year’s runner-up to FC Seoul said this season will be a good learning experience for his squad.

“The important thing is to narrow the gap between our starters and reserves,” Park said. “It’s not going to be easy, but we will be better for it in the end.”

Jeju’s Kim Eun-jung, who scored 17 goals last season and earned the 2010 K-League MVP award, said he is not worried about personal goals this year.

“Rather than trying to win my second straight MVP, I want to help the team lift the championship trophy,” he said. “It isn’t just my goal. It’s the entire team’s goal.”

The offseason saw a slew of transactions, and goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae, a former national team stalwart, was one of the biggest names on the move.

The Bluewings front office was said to have encouraged Lee to join the team’s coaching ranks, but the veteran goalkeeper wanted to continue playing. The veteran of four World Cups was not retained by Suwon, his team for 13 seasons, and he opted to join the Dragons instead.

Lee’s new team travels to Suwon on May 7, but Lee said he harbors no ill feelings toward his old team.

“I think I will be familiar with the surroundings, except that I will have to use a different locker room,” Lee quipped. “Once we’re on the pitch, it will be all business, and we’re all going to try to win. My job is to do the best I can for my current team.”

The K-League has tried to revive declining attendance and television ratings amid the surging popularity of baseball and volleyball.

Pro baseball set all-time single season attendance records for Korea the past two seasons, while volleyball reported a 35 percent surge in attendance from a season ago through January. The K-League suffered drops in each of the past three seasons.

The K-League teams combined to draw 2.7 million fans last year and have set out to attract 3.5 million fans in 2011. Yonhap

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