Starting XI: K League United

Welcome to a continuation on the regular series on The 94th Minute, called “Starting XI”. This is where I ask various people, who are fans of football, a number of questions to get to know them better! The majority of the questions will differ for each person, but the final question will always be:

“Who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI?”

This is a question where anyone can be put into their starting eleven, whether they are famous footballers, football legends, past or unknown players who had an impact on their childhood, or even players they have played with or coached. Anyone is acceptable in their XI providing they give a reason for their inclusion!

The twentieth instalment of the series is with one of my favourite websites and podcasts that is currently around at the moment, the excellent K League United. K League United is an English-language website and weekly podcast which covers the South Korean football scene, focusing on the two-tiered K League. It is also the official English content provider for the K League’s main website!!

KLU Logo

In this interview, I chatted with two of the main trio of the site: Ryan Walters, a Chicago Fire and Jeonnam Dragons fan who is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of K League United (as well as the occasional TV pundit) and Paul Neat, a Preston North End and Daejeon Citizen supporter who is an Associate Editor of KLU (and also host of Football Paul‘s Korean Football Shinmun).

I wanted to know from the KLU dynamic duo how the superb website got started, how and why they chose their specific Korean teams who they support and report about, the best places to watch football in South Korea, the players we should all be watching out for from the K League or the Korean Republic, and their all-time favourite elevens.

The latest podcast from K League United can be found below, where they talk about Suwon Bluewings’ KFA Cup triumph, and the upcoming games for the Korean national team in World Cup qualifying:

https://www.kleagueunited.com/2019/11/klu-pod-fa-cup-recap-knt.html

Key:

  • RW: Ryan Walters
  • PN: Paul Neat

 

Q. Firstly, thank you guys for appearing on Starting XI. Could you give the readers some information on your excellent website and podcast, K League United, and how it all came about in its creation?

KLU Logo 2RW: I started K League United shortly after arriving in Gwangyang and realizing my apartment was all of 10 minutes from the Jeonnam Dragons home stadium. I had researched the league quite a bit before coming back to Korea, but found it difficult to find information, and more importantly saw a number of defunct sites. A lot of folks came to Korea, found a passion for the local league, started a blog, but then left and their work kind of disappeared into the ether afterwards. Wanting to cover the Dragons and create a spot where people’s work could live on after they left Korea, I started K League United as a central hub for the league mainly to make it easier to find information. A big part of it was also making a site for writers to simply write about the league and not have to worry about creating an entire site first.

Since the early days, we’ve grown considerably thanks to a ridiculously hard working team of 20+ writers throughout the country. We’ve been fortunate enough to have contributors from all over the globe and guest writers from the likes of ESPN, FourFourTwo, The Guardian, and more stop by for a preview or two. About two years ago, the league contacted me after vetting the site for six months and asked if we would be interested in working together. Something I honestly never saw coming. Since then KLU has become the official English content provider for the league and we’ve continued to grow.

 

Q. Are you amazed how KLU has grown, and has now become a very important site for Korean football in the English language?

RW: Considering this is something I started to write about Jeonnam Dragons with some like-minded folks, yeah it’s pretty surprising. I don’t know that I would have believed the pipe dream of working directly with the league would have come true in the first couple of years. However, once I moved up to Seoul and was able to connect with more writers and players on a person to person basis, the momentum suggested something special might happen. We managed to pick up more extremely passionate and talented writers, and players were amazingly giving with their time and candor in interviews. I thought that momentum might result in some of the partnerships we have now with local businesses, but working directly with the league and a number of the teams here is still something I have to pinch myself over from time to time.

PN: Yes, absolutely. It is amazing to think what the site has become since its inception in 2015. If you were to tell me back then when I was writing previews as the Daejeon [Citizen] columnist that we would one day get press access and the opportunity to interview K League stars like Dejan, Osmar, Adam Taggart, and many more then I wouldn’t have believed you. We are lucky to have such a talented pool of writers based all over the country and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

 

Q. How did you get involved in choosing and then watching your respective teams?

Jeonnam DragonsRW: I’d like to think Jeonnam chose me. Haha. As I said, I was lucky enough to move within a 10 minute walk from their stadium, so there wasn’t much choice. As for the other writers, the goal has always been to have one writer for every team, so we’ve tried to find people around the country supporting their local and then get them to write about the team.

PN: I joined the website more or less towards the beginning, I think it was a couple of months after the site was launched. I had already met Ryan before at a football tournament which he organised in Goeje Island (near Busan). Because Ryan also had an allegiance to Everton due to USMNT players who had played for the club like Tim Howard and Brian McBride, he knew of a friend of mine, another Everton supporter called Adam, based in Korea, who actually also played for the same football team as I did in Daejeon.

Daejeon CitizenRyan asked Adam if he knew of anyone who would like to write articles about Daejeon Citizen, and because I was looking to get back into journalism, Adam asked me and I jumped at the chance because I saw it as a great way to get some more experience and to write about football again whilst also learning more about K League in general. Then, when I moved to Seoul from Daejeon, I took over the vacant FC Seoul columnist slot. I had watched FC Seoul semi regularly since 2015 anyway so they were a team I was familiar with to an extent.

 

Q. How has the K League changed from when you started watching it, to now? Has the standard of the league improved?

RW: I obviously have a pretty biased opinion, but I think the league’s quite a bit better than it was in 2015 when I started the site. That season it was pretty easy to predict 1-0, or even 0-0 and get it right. It was an overly defensive league with most managers far more focused on not losing rather than winning. I have to give some credit to the league for changing that culture with the introduction of goals scored instead of goal difference being the first tie-breaker after points. That kind of forced teams to come out and go for goals. It’s been a gradual change, but last year’s Gyeongnam team under Kim Jongboo paved the path for teams to be unapologetically attacking. It hasn’t quite worked out for them this year, but I do think the trend of playing more attacking football has stuck and that’s obviously a delightful change.

PN: My first season was 2013 and one thing that stands out the most is that the standard of goalkeeping has improved an awful lot. It seems as though goalkeepers seem much more assured now and aren’t making gaffes like I would see six seasons ago. Also, the general quality of play has improved. Teams aren’t just lumping balls forward and can play football. There’s also an interesting mix of styles like Gangwon’s possession-based style under Kim Byungsoo, Daegu’s counter-attack under Andre, and then the real high quality teams like Jeonbuk who just have so much pace and power going forward.

 

Q. If you could make any improvements to the K League, what would they be and why?

RW: Oh man…. this is honestly an entire podcast we’ll do this winter. As with anything we love and put under a microscope, there’s a lot that I’d like to see changed. I’ve gone on about playoffs before, but the balance in the league this season has rendered that argument moot in a lot of ways. I would still love to see the season building up to one grand final in a neutral venue, but I’m willing to put that argument to rest for a bit. Instead, I’d say I want K League to become more of a global league, and specifically I’d love for it to become a selling league in similar way Eredivisie is in Europe.

K-League Logo

The introduction of the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] player quota next season will allow teams a total of five foreigners (three from anywhere, one from AFC nations, and one specifically from Southeast Asian nations), and I hope teams embrace it. I think the rise of Vietnam in the international game and Thai League clubs in the AFC Champions League (ACL) proves there’s a lot of talent in the region and I would love to see K League become the league of choice for ASEAN players. J.League has already done a tremendous job positioning itself as that league for Thai players, but given the connection between Vietnam and Korea thanks to manager Park Hangseo, I think the opportunity is there for Korean clubs to bridge the gap with V.League. There’s a lot of young talent in Vietnam and other ASEAN nations and I think 2020 is a perfect time for K2 clubs specifically to get into the mix and get some of these players over here. Whether they sell the player on to make a profit in a similar manner to MLS clubs and South American talent, or keep the player on to become an integral part of the club, there’s a lot of upside for K League finally embracing their own continent.

PN: I would love for K League to be more accessible to international supporters. K League is regarded as the strongest league in Asia by many and it is a shame that people outside of Korea aren’t able to watch live matches. I really like what A-League are doing by streaming games on YouTube. I think K League would benefit from this sort of exposure. Then, more exposure could lead to more investment which would benefit the K League and also the teams themselves.

 

Q. If someone wanted to come to South Korea to watch some K League action, where would you say are the best places or teams to watch football?

RW: Suwon, Jeonbuk, and Seoul have the largest contingent of supporters, so the atmosphere in their home stadiums is consistently good. That said, some of the football specific grounds like Daegu, Incheon, and Pohang offer up a much more intimate experience of the match and are delightful in their own right. But, one of the best things about following Korean football is how unique some of the grounds are. I mean, Gangwon played at the foot of a ski jump for a full season. Honestly, there’s a bit of everything, so it would really just depend on what someone wants in their match day experience.

Gangwon
Gangwon’s ground, with the massive ski-jump at one end.

PN: We are lucky to have so many good stadiums here. It would depend on how long someone was in the country for but I would recommend visiting Seoul World Cup Stadium for the aesthetics, the view and most of the time there is a decent atmosphere but also Incheon United because that stadium is stunning and due to the way the stadium was designed the acoustics are really good. Of course, from a biased point of view, Daejeon World Cup Stadium is also worth a visit because personally I think it is one of the best football specific stadiums, but also it is where South Korea beat Italy in the 2002 World Cup Quarter Final.

Daejeon Citizen Stadium
The Daejeon World Cup Stadium, home of Daejeon Citizen.

 

Q. Is there anyone in the K League, or South Korea in general, that you think people should keep an eye out for – who are the next big stars from Korea?

Adam Taggart
Suwon Bluewings & Socceroo striker, Adam Taggart.

RW: With former Jeonnam Dragon Mislav Oršić doing work in the UEFA Champions League for Dinamo Zagreb, Hwang Uijo making the move to Bordeaux in Ligue 1, and former K League MVP Lee Jaesung doing well for Holstein Kiel, I think there’s plenty to suggest K League can develop talent and send them on to higher levels. Adam Taggart’s earned his way back into the starting lineup for the Socceroos after a strong year in Suwon, so if folks don’t know about him already, they will soon.

As far as Korean players, it’s hard not to be excited about FC Anyang’s Jo Kyusung. He’s just 21-years-old and finished third in the K2 Golden Boot race with 14 goals and is one of the main reasons the Violets are in the playoffs this year. He’s aggressive, positions himself well in and around the box, and has a solid finishing touch for someone his age. He’s set to be part of the Olympic squad, and that experience should help him in what will be a massive year for his development next season.

Another youngster to watch out for is U20 World Cup vet Oh Sehun. He had something of a coming out party at that tournament and was strong for Asan Mugunghwa in K2 this season. He’s made the extremely intelligent decision to get his military service out of the way early and has applied for Sangju Sangmu next season. The move would not only get his mandatory service finished before he’s 23, but would also see him bumped up into K1 while doing so. He’s great on the ball, uses his body extremely well, and has tremendous vision for someone so young. I’m pretty excited to see what he can do in K1 next year

Ko Myeongseok
Suwon Bluewings defender, Ko Myeongseok

PN: One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the amount of talent that we see come through from Korean National Team at youth level. Some players who have caught my eye and are certainly worth keeping tabs on are 21 year-old Jo Kyuseong at FC Anyang, he is a first year pro and has scored 13 league goals for Anyang (at the time of writing with two league matches left) who look set for the playoffs. Also, FC Seoul have Cho Youngwook (20) who hasn’t had as much game time this season as I would have expected but he has the versatility to play in different positions, is a good finisher, has composure and I hope to see more of him in 2020. Another player I like, who I was sorry to see leave Daejeon, is centre back Ko Myeongseok. He is 24 and a proper ball-playing centre back and was statistically the best central defender in K League 2 last year and thus earned a move to Suwon Bluewings.

 

Q. What has been the best match or moment that you have encountered since writing for KLU?

RW: The 2016 ACL Final in Jeonju was pretty special. It was the first time Matt, Paul, and I all met up in person and we each wore our team’s kits. Matt obviously clad in Jeonbuk green, Paul in Daejeon “purple”, and I was in my faithful yellow of Jeonnam. Along with meeting up in person for the first time and recording our debut live videos (something that would eventually get us noticed by the league), the atmosphere in that stadium was unreal. Jeonbuk supporters always bring the noise, but there was almost a Korean national team feel to the crowd as everyone cheered on the Korean side over their West Asian rivals Al-Ain. Nearly all of the media attention leading up to the match was on UAE star Omar Abdulrahman and how the ACL was to be his coming out party for the world and would preclude a move to Europe. Instead, Jeonbuk shut him down and Leonardo had a stellar match in front of his home supporters to give Jeonbuk a first leg advantage.

From the reporting side of things, honestly every time we walk out of the tunnel and onto the pitch to do our pregame videos I get butterflies in my stomach. One of my favorite things about going to a game is the first time you can hear the crowd and see the pitch as you’re coming out of the concourse. Whether it’s baseball, hockey, football, or any other sport, that moment you hear the crown build, smell the grass on the field, and eventually walk up the ramp to take it all in is magical to this day. Being able to do that at ground level with the players warming up and fans in full voice is always special. None more so than this year’s Super Match with both sides going nuts and showing how well and truly loud it is on the field. Honestly, I love it every time.

Dejan
The K League goalscoring legend, Dejan!

PN: There are a few that stand out. One is our first time in the press box, it was the first Super Match of 2018 and even though the game was heavily criticised as being a dull 0-0 draw, Ryan, Matthew and I enjoyed the occasion. We interviewed Dejan in the mixed zone afterwards, who came over and was surprised to see us there, and it seemed like a watershed moment for us.

Another was the ACL semifinal second leg between Suwon Bluewings and Kashima Antlers. Suwon were 3-2 down heading into the second leg and needed to win by two goals. They conceded early on but managed to claw their way in front, Dejan scoring what we thought was going to be the winner to send Suwon through to the final. Then, some suicidal defending saw the Bluewings concede two more and Kashima went through. That evening it was as partisan press box as you’re likely to see due to the Korea vs Japan rivalry. Knowing Dejan I was aware of how much he wanted to win the ACL, to cap off an excellent career in K League, and so I had already started to plan questions to ask him in the mixed zone afterwards. I was gutted for him but it was a crazy game and a great advert for Asian Football.

One final one would be the Team K League versus Juventus friendly in the summer. Ronaldo didn’t play but the K League players were excellent and I think, certainly myself, we all felt proud of them for putting in such a good performance against a team like Juventus. Afterwards there was a bit of a media circus as the press were waiting to speak to Ronaldo but we stood and waited close to where the players come out of the home dressing room for the K League players to come out and got interviews with Mix Diskerud, Osmar, Adam Taggart and Jose Morais who was the Manager of Team K League. The game ended in a 3-3 draw but it was a victory for K League.

 

Q. What are your future plans or wishes for KLU?

RW: I still have dreams of playing FIFA on the big screen at Seoul World Cup Stadium against Go Yohan, Yang Hanbin, or getting in a rematch against Osmar. But, that’s just a fun little aside. As far as site goals go, I would love to see us work more directly with clubs to help get international fans interested in the league. I think a lot of teams have fascinating histories even though the league is so young and there are some ridiculously interesting player stories to tell. I think the early rounds of the Korean FA Cup offer a unique chance for clubs to take control of their own broadcasting and offer up something special for fans all around the world via YouTube or other social media. I’d love to see KLU involved on the English side of that if any teams are keen to do so.

Another plan we have going into 2020 is to support local grassroots football as much as we can to help people get involved and find their own community through the sport. Along those lines, a pipe dream for me would be to host a tournament here in Seoul with amateur teams and hopefully a few K League vets, with proceeds going to charities here in Korea and throughout Asia helping underprivileged kids take the field and get involved in football. This sport is one of the few truly international languages that can instantly create a community, and I would love to use whatever amount of influence we have to create a bit of positivity around the sport and help even in a small way.

PN: To continue to try and create more content that people like. The podcast has helped shift our focus a bit more but for me personally I would like to do more written interviews with players, as a print journalist, I prefer written interviews so hopefully I can interview more players next season. I would also like to gather the courage to interview a Korean player in Korean, but we’ll see about that! The ultimate dream for me is for KLU to become a full time job but unless we get a rich benefactor I can’t see that happening any time soon!

 

Q. Finally, what are your all-time favourite Starting XI, and the reasons for your picks?

Paul’s Starting XI Of All-Time (Formation: 4-4-2)

Starting XI - Paul Neat
Paul’s all-time, favourite eleven players.

PN: My Best XI is based on players who I have seen with my own two eyes in a live match. Some may seem odd compared to others but they’re relative to the standard of league which I saw them in at the time and how they influenced the match.

  • Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United)
  • Right-back: Gary Neville (Manchester United)
  • Left-back: Leighton Baines (Everton)
  • Centre-back: Sean Gregan (Preston North End)
  • Centre-back: Jaap Stam (Manchester United)
  • Left midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
  • Right midfield: David Beckham (Manchester United)
  • Central midfield: Seol Kihyun (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
  • Central midfield: Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal)
  • Forward: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
  • Forward: David Nugent (Preston North End)

Paul’s K League Starting XI (Formation: 4-4-2)

Starting XI - Paul Neat - K League XI
Paul’s all-time, favourite eleven players from the K League.

PN: Again, players that I’ve watched in my time in Korea (2013 season to present).

  • Goalkeeper: Yang Hanbin (FC Seoul)
  • Left-back: Hong Chul (Suwon Bluewings)
  • Right-back: Cha Duri (FC Seoul)
  • Centre-back: Ko Myeongseok (Daejeon Citizen)
  • Centre-back: Osmar (FC Seoul)
  • Left midfield: Yun Illok (FC Seoul)
  • Right midfield: Ricardo Lopes (Jeonbuk)
  • Central midfield: Hwang Inbeom (Daejeon Citizen)
  • Central midfield: Cesinha (Daegu FC)
  • Forward: Adriano (Daejeon Citizen)
  • Forward: Dejan Damjanović (FC Seoul)

 

Ryan’s Starting XI of All-Time (Formation: 4-3-3)

Starting XI - Ryan Walters
Ryan’s all-time, favourite eleven players.

RW: For my Best XI I’ve decided to combine my two teams, Chicago Fire and Jeonnam Dragons during the time I’ve followed each squad.

  • Goalkeeper: Kim Byungji (ex-Jeonnam Dragons)
  • Defence: Lee Seulchan (Jeonnam Dragons)
  • Defence: Kwak Kwangseon (Jeonnam Dragons)
  • Defence: Johan Kappelhof (Chicago Fire)
  • Defence: Choi Hyojin (Jeonnam Dragons)
  • Midfield: Kim Youngwook (Jeonnam Dragons)
  • Midfield: Bastian Schweinsteiger (ex-Chicago Fire)
  • Midfield: Dax McCarty (ex-Chicago Fire)
  • Forward: Mislav Oršić (ex-Jeonnam Dragons)
  • Forward: Nemanja Nikolić (Chicago Fire)
  • Forward: Lee Jongho (ex-Jeonnam Dragons)

 

A massive thank you to Ryan, Paul and Matthew from KLU for answering my questions, and being absolutely brilliant guests on the Starting XI series! They were one of the first names on the list of people that I had wanted to interview when I decided to start Starting XI, so I am very happy it finally came about. I also enjoyed their starting XI picks, and was pleased to see Osmar and Dejan make appearances!

To find out more about K League United, the links to their excellent podcasts, website and social media accounts can be found below. In addition, their Patreon link is also below should you wish to financially support them:

 

To read or catch up on the previous Starting XI episodes, they can all be found at the following link HERE.

If there you have any feedback, comments or suggestions who I should interview next in the series, let me know either below in the comments box, tweet me @The94thMin or email me at the94thminute@gmail.com! It would be good to hear what you think about the series, and what have been your favourite episodes so far!

Diolch!

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