New pro football season to kick off with usual suspects to contend for title

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- The top South Korean professional football league will kick off its new season at the weekend with some of the usual suspects ready to battle for supremacy once again.

The 12-team K League Classic will open its 2014 season on Saturday with three matches, including the rematch of the last season's dramatic finale between the champ Pohang Steelers and the runner-up Ulsan Hyundai.

Ulsan held a two-point lead on Pohang heading into that match and needed only a draw to clinch their first championship in eight years. Pohang had other ideas, however, scoring the winner merely seconds before the final whistle for the thrilling 1-0 win to snatch the title from Ulsan's grasp.

The two clubs are seen as contenders again for this season, and they're expected to battle the likes of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and FC Seoul, the two familiar faces near the top of the standings in recent seasons.

At the league's media day event held on Monday, Hwang Sun-hong, Pohang's head coach, said his club should be able to build on the championship season.

"We lost some players over the winter and some people may say we're facing a crisis," Hwang said. "But we can turn this into an opportunity. We had such a great experience last year and we hope to create more miracles this year."

For the second straight season, Pohang will not have the services of foreign players, whereas other clubs will look to their imported stars to carry the day on both ends of the pitch.

Ulsan will bring back its foreign players from last season, including midfielder Rafinha, the team's second leading scorer last year. The team's biggest offseason change took place on the bench, as Kim Ho-gon abruptly resigned after Ulsan lost the finale and Jo Min-gook succeeded him in December.

Jo, who had previously coached in the semi-pro league, said he understands what the team's management expects from him.

"Kim Ho-gon had done great things but he was never able to win the league championship," Jo said of the former coach who put Ulsan in second place in 2011 and 2013. "It's my responsibility to get to the next level. We're bringing back some talented players from last season and as long as I can give them necessary support, we're capable of capturing the title."

Jeonbuk, which finished third in 2013 and second in 2012 after winning the league 2011, has title aspirations once again. The team put its high-octane offense on full display last week during the AFC Champions League, when it defeated Yokohama F. Marinos 3-0 in the group phase action.

Hwang, Pohang's coach, said Jeonbuk is so talented at every position that it may be the only K League Classic club able to field two competitive teams.

Choi Kang-hee, Jeonbuk's head coach, said that easy victory last week might have been the worst thing that could have happened to his club, for Jeonbuk will now have a bull's-eye on its back.

"From my perspective, we still have a lot of room for improvement," Choi said. "There's hardly any difference among the dozen teams in this league."

FC Seoul, the 2012 champ, hasn't fallen out of the top five since 2007. The once star-studded roster was decimated this offseason, however, as Dejan Damjanovic, the league's top scorer in each of the past three seasons, bolted for Jiangsu Sainty of China and former captain Ha Dae-sung, considered the heart and soul of the team, signed with Beijing Guoan, also in China. Veteran defensive back Adilson dos Santos, the pillar on the back line for eight seasons, retired and became an assistant coach for the team.

Choi Yong-soo, FC Seoul's head coach, said he and his players will embrace new challenges presented by these changes.

"We've had great players over the past four years but changes are inevitable in this sport," he said. "This will be an opportunity for us to grow even further. We're entering this season with the mindset that we can still get the job done with whom we have left."

The 12 K League Classic teams will each play 33 matches, and they will then be split into two groups based on their record. The top six clubs and the bottom six clubs will then play five more games apiece within their groups over the rest of the season.

With no postseason, the best team after all 38 games will be declared the champion.

The 12th team will be relegated to the second division, the K League Challenge, to be supplanted by the champion of that lower-tier competition.

The 11th-ranked team will enter a playoff against the winner of a promotion playoff among the No. 2, No.3 and No. 4 seeds from the K League Challenge.

This will be the second year of the promotion-relegation system in the top domestic league.

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