CHANGWON -- For years in the top South Korean football league, Incheon United barely avoided getting relegated to the second division, collecting just enough points near the end of the season to stay alive.
That changed in 2022, when they finished in fourth place and punched their first ticket to the Asian Football Confederation Champions League, the top club competition on the continent.
Head coach Jo Sung-hwan now wants his Incheon team to be a regular in the big tournament.
"We have to change the narrative, and we can no longer be just the team that barely survives every season," Jo said at a press conference Tuesday evening in Changwon, the southeastern town where Incheon have been gearing up for the 2023 K League 1 season. "We're close to Incheon International Airport. We may as well be playing at the AFC Champions League every year."
Since the K League adopted the promotion-relegation system in 2013, Incheon have never dropped down to the K League 2. But they spent most of those years in the bottom half of the K League 1, until making their mark in the top four last season.
During this offseason, Incheon made some key moves to bolster their attack. They plucked Sin Jin-ho, one of the league's top midfielders last year, from Pohang Steelers. Gerso Fernandes, who had eight goals and seven assists for Jeju United in 2022, will be showing off his playmaking chops for Incheon in 2023.
"Expectations are high for this year's team, and we'll try to meet them," Jo said. "I think we are good enough to be in the top three. We want to be quick in transition, limit needless back passes and get the upper hand in ball possession."
In an interesting offseason development, Incheon have been seeking a reunion with striker Stefan Mugosa, who left for Vissel Kobe in Japan last season after firing home 14 goals in 18 matches. Despite missing more than half of the season, Mugosa still finished third in goals in the K League 1.
The Montenegrin striker never found his footing in Japan, though, with zero goals in five matches. Mugosa is said to be interested in a return to Incheon, and the feeling is mutual for the team.
Incheon may not be able to afford the transfer fee for Mugosa but at least his old No. 9 is still available.
"Players can choose whatever number they want. For some reason, no one wanted that number," Jo said. "These things don't always go the way we want them to. If we can get him back, that'd be great. But we're also preparing for a situation where we won't have him in the fold."(Yonhap)