Ulsan Hyundai FC head coach Hong Myung-bo watches his K League 1 club during practice in Ulsan, some 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Tuesday, in this photo provided by Ulsan. (Ulsan Hyundai FC)
ULSAN -- Ulsan Hyundai FC brought in a new head coach for 2021 but ended up with the same result for a third straight season in the K League 1: finishing runners-up to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
It was a particularly bitter pillow to swallow for the bench boss, Hong Myung-bo, who had his club at the top of the tables in the early going and who, to this day, believes Ulsan were just as good as Jeonbuk.
Ultimately, though, Jeonbuk finished two points ahead of Ulsan, 76-74. While Jeonbuk extended their own league record with their fifth consecutive title and ninth league championship overall, Ulsan added to a rather dubious mark. They have been runners-up a record 10 times now. Their last K League title came in 2005.
Hong wants to end that drought in 2022.
"We are in a much better spot than last year to start the season," Hong said in an interview at his clubhouse in Ulsan, some 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul. "The objective is obviously to win the championship."
Hong was referring to a hectic schedule at the start of last year. As the 2020 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League winners, Ulsan were invited to the FIFA Club World Cup, held in Qatar in February. Upon returning home, they had to quarantine for a few days and faced a time crunch to prepare for the K League opening kickoff on March 1.
There is no extracurricular activity this time around for Ulsan, giving Hong and his players more time to reflect on their 2021 campaign and prepare for the new year.
The one devastating blow to Ulsan's title bid came in a 3-2 loss to Jeonbuk on Nov. 6, which put Jeonbuk ahead of Ulsan by three points on the tables with three matches to play.
Jeonbuk's Russian forward Stanislav Iljutcenko headed in the go-ahead goal just seconds before the whistle for the crucial three points. And Iljutcenko, along with the Brazilian forward Gustavo, represented something that Ulsan didn't have: production from foreign strikers.
The two players had 15 goals apiece to tie for the team lead and for third overall in the league. Ulsan's Austrian forward, Lukas Hinterseer, left for Germany at the end of August after scoring six times in 20 matches for Ulsan.
Hong, who never seemed sold on Hinterseer, said he will continue to rely on homegrown attackers, a group that includes the 2021 MVP nominee Lee Dong-jun, up-and-coming midfielder Lee Dong-gyeong and lanky forward Oh Se-hun. All three are 24 or younger.
"You can spend a lot of money on foreign strikers like Jeonbuk, but I am trying to build a team with a foundation of promising young players who will bring more bang for the buck," Hong said. "I think fans will find that more interesting and entertaining."
On the back end, Ulsan featured offensive-minded full backs but lacked a center back with vision and passing skills to create offensive opportunities.
Enter Kim Young-gwon, who signed with Ulsan last month after spending his entire club career in China and Japan. The longtime national team mainstay played for Hong at the 2012 London Olympics and again at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
"He has a ton of experience, and I expect him to be the leader of our defense on and off the field," Hong said.
In their desperate search for anything positive that they can cling to, Ulsan supporters have noted how Hong has enjoyed success every 10 years, starting in 1992, and the pattern will hold in 2022.
In 1992, he was named the MVP of the K League. Then in 2002, Hong captained South Korea to the semifinals at the FIFA World Cup, a stunning run that cemented his legacy as one of the country's all-time greats. Another 10 years later in 2012, South Korea won the bronze medal at the London Olympics with Hong as head coach. It was South Korea's first medal in Olympic football.
"I have looked back on those years and thought about how I was able to accomplish all of that," Hong said. "It wasn't just because of the 10-year thing. I was so locked in and put absolutely everything I had into all the matches then. I will have the same kind of urgency this year to try to win the title." (Yonhap)