Ulsan repeat as champions, Suwon Samsung suffer relegation in K League for 1st time

Ulsan Hyundai FC players and coaches lift the K League 1 championship trophy at Munsu Football Stadium in  Ulsan, Dec. 3. Yonhap

The 2023 season in the top Korean football league will go down as one of “firsts” for two clubs at the opposite ends of the tables. At the top, Ulsan Hyundai FC won their second straight K League 1 titles, the first time they have been able to repeat as the league champions .Then at the bottom, Suwon Samsung Bluewings suffered their first relegation to the second-tier K League 2. The four-time league champions didn’t even get a chance to stay around in promotion-relegation playoffs, instead taking the direct fall to the lower division after winning just eight out of their 38 matches .Ulsan finished as runners-up in 2019, 2020 and 2021, before ending their title drought at 17 years in 2022. And they picked up where they left off to begin the 2023 season, winning their first six matches. They opened up a 13-point lead over Pohang Steelers in early July. Ulsan lost consecutive matches just once all season, and locked down their championship on Oct. 29, with three matches remaining on the season.

Ulsan also produced their second consecutive most valuable player (MVP) award winner, as defender Kim Young-gwon captured the top individual honor a year after veteran midfielder Lee Chung-yong did so. Ulsan head coach Hong Myung-bo was voted the K League 1’s Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season, too. Hong is largely credited with establishing order and stability within Ulsan. Suwon Samsung, on the other hand, were anything but stable. They went through four head coaches in 2023 alone — two full-timers and two caretakers. Yeom Ki-hun, Suwon Samsung’s franchise leader in goals, assists and matches played, was thrust into the caretaker role for the season’s final stretch, after starting the year as player-coach. Yeom, though, couldn’t drag Suwon Samsung out of the relegation zone and gave a teary apology to angry supporters after the team’s goalless draw against Gangwon FC in the season finale on Dec. 2.

Suwon Samsung’s demise has been several years in the making, as their payroll has been in steady decline over the past decade. It doesn’t explain the whole picture, however, as clubs who have been spending even less money than Suwon Samsung have outperformed them on the field in recent seasons .Gwangju FC, a community club whose pockets aren’t nearly as deep as other corporate teams, offered a prime example this year. In their first season with the big boys following promotion from the K League 2, Gwangju finished in third place with 59 points, while tying for the league lead with the fewest goals conceded at 35.Gwangju and Daejeon Hana Citizen FC were two teams that moved up the ladder from the K League 2 for 2023, and they will both be back in 2024. Only one K League 2 club, Gimcheon Sangmu FC, earned promotion from the second division for next season. Gangwon FC and Suwon FC, after finishing in 10th and 11th place in the K League 1, both survived the promotion-relegation playoffs against K League 2 opponents 스포츠토토존 last week

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