K-League takes offense to low crowds

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K-League takes offense to low crowds


Only 8,724 turned out Saturday in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province, for the first Korean league soccer game of the season between defending champion Seongnam and Chunnam. [YONHAP]

The Korean professional soccer league opened the 2007 season last weekend with a vow by every coach to push for more aggressive soccer play to lift the slump in attendance that began last year.
On Saturday, the defending K-League champions Seongnam Chunma and the Chunnam Dragons played to a 1-1 draw. There were six more matches on Sunday, but no team scored more than two goals.
All but one head coach ― Sangmu FC’s Lee Gang-jo ― attended the league’s official preseason press conference in Seoul on Feb. 26, vowing to make this year a banner year for the league.
“When you’re leading 1-0, or 2-0, you have to play aggressively, not conservatively,” said the Dragons’ head coach, Huh Jung-moo. “We need more offensive output from the midfield this year. Last year, we had so many draws [a league-high 13] because we tried to protect our lead and couldn’t get that extra goal to seal the deal. It will be different this year.”
In 2006, the league averaged 2.2 goals per game, down from 2.3 the previous season and 2.9 goals per game in the 1999 season.
The scoring drought has coincided with a decline in attendance. Last season, the 279 K-League games drew 2.45 million, compared to the record-high 2.87 million in just 240 games in 2005. The average attendance per game dropped to 8,801, compared to 11,972 per game in 2005 and 10,123 in 2004. The season opener last Saturday in Seongnam drew just 8,724; the capacity there is 16,000.
The Pohang Steelers scored the second-most goals in the league last year with 42, and Brazilian head coach Sergio Farias, in his second Korean season, vowed to keep up the offense. “No matter what the sport, offense is always more fun to watch than defense,” he said. “The scoring onus doesn’t just fall on our forwards. Everyone will be held responsible.”
Switzerland’s Andy Egli, coach of Busan I’Park, was a bit more specific about his approach. “My philosophy of aggressive soccer is to send players to the penalty box as quickly as possible, and keep as many in there as possible,” he said. “I believe that’s where the most goals are scored, through close-range shooting or converting rebounds.”
Players on the 14 K-League clubs might want to pace themselves for a long season, because due to some tweaks to the scheduling this year, they will only have one month off in the summer after getting two months last year due to the World Cup break.
The K-League’s regular season wraps up Oct. 10, but whereas standings were kept separately for the first and second halves of the season in 2006, there will be only one for the full season this year. The 14 teams will each play 26 games.
The top six teams will advance to the playoffs, compared to four last season. The sixth-place team faces the third-place squad, while the fourth- and fifth-place clubs play each other in the knockout first round. Winners of the first round will battle for the right to play the regular season runner-up in the third round.
The regular season champion will get a bye to the two-game championship round, with each team getting a home game.
The championship matches are tentatively scheduled for Nov. 25 and Dec. 2, so they won’t overlap with Asian Football Confederation Champions League tournaments, featuring the top club teams in Asia.
However, if Jeonbuk Motors, Seongnam Chunma and Chunnam Dragons, who are scheduled to play in the AFC tournament, do not make the K-League finals, the Korean championship games will be moved to early November.
The FA Cup championship tournament, a separate tournament for K-League teams, has also undergone some changes. Jeonbuk and Seongnam will get byes to tournament stage of the FA Cup, and the remaining 12 teams will be divided into two groups of six, where they will each play 10 games. The one-and-out FA Cup final will be held June 27.
In 2007, there will be no Super Cup, a matchup between the K-League regular season champ and the FA Cup winner.
And there are even more changes, as the K-League welcomed back stars who had played overseas.
Leading the group of returning players is forward Ahn Jung-hwan, who joined the Suwon Bluewings after playing for MSV Duisburg in Germany’s Bundesliga last year. After the German squad was relegated from the league, Ahn was not able to agree on a contract to join the Hearts in Scotland and was then released by MSV, giving him a six-month unplanned break.
But Ahn, best known for his golden goal against Italy in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, is back on home soil for the first time in seven years. The Bluewings, the K-League runner-up last season, are counting on the striker’s scoring touch to carry them even farther this year. Ahn played 57 minutes last Sunday, but did not score.
Other players returning from abroad are Ulsan Tigers midfielder Hyun Young-min, who was previously with FC Zenit as the first Korean player in Russia, and Chunma forward Kim Dong-hyun, formerly of FC Rubin Kazan in Russia. Defensive back Kim Jin-kyu of the Dragons and forward Choi Sung-yong of the Tigers are returning from Japan.
Forward Ko Jong-soo is making a different sort of comeback with the Daejeon Citizen. After being released by the Dragons after the 2005 season due to insubordination and a poor work ethic, Ko spent last year without a team. Though initially hailed as Korea’s finest technician on the pitch, Ko is now well-known by the moniker “lazy genius.”
After toiling in Japan and in the K-League with little fanfare from 2003 to 2005, Ko, the 1998 K-League most valuable player, is back to square one. He shed nearly 10 kilograms (22 pounds) during the offseason, his coaching staff said.
Although Ko recently experienced some pain in his surgically repaired right knee, his head coach Choi Yoon-gyum said Ko should be ready to go for the team’s home opener Sunday versus the Tigers.
He did not play in the first game of the season. Choi, speaking at the K-League’s Feb. 26 press conference, according to a transcript, said Ko would not be in the lineup in the team’s first game against the Bluewings on the road last Sunday, even if healthy, because the road match is “someone else’s party, and I don’t want my franchise star there.”

By Yoo Jee-ho Staff Writer [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]
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