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Coming home: Returnees and K League first-timers in 2022

league 2022.02.14   I   hits 1679

Each year K League welcomes new players to the league, some coming from countries far and wide. But there will be several Korean stars making their K League debuts this coming season having played much of their careers abroad until now. Lee Seung-woo signed for Suwon FC in December 2021 while Kim Young-gwon switched J.League for K League, signing for Ulsan Hyundai. The duo are also joined by Lee Myung-joo who returns to K League after several years overseas.  

Lee Seung-woo, the talk of the town

Few players have created a buzz upon returning to Korea quite like Lee Seung-woo. Lee famously came through the youth ranks with Barcelona before having spells with Italy, Belgium and Portugal but, at the tail-end of 2021, it was announced that Lee was to sign for Suwon FC. Lee, who was part of the 2018 Russia World Cup squad, has signed for a K League club for more first-team opportunities. Known for his pace, agility and dribbling, fans will be able to see the 24-year-old in action for the first time in K League when Lee and his Suwon FC teammates take on Jeonbuk in the season opener. In doing so, Lee will be going up against his former Barca youth teammate Paik Seung-ho who returned to Korea last year after several seasons in Europe.

Student Kim Young-gwon and master Hong Myung-bo

Korean international centre back, and one of the first names on Paulo Bento's teamsheet is likely to be one of the first names on the teamsheet of Hong Myung-bo, current Ulsan manager and former Taeguk Warriors boss. Kim Young-gwon has had a storied career, winning six Chinese Super League titles, two ACLs, two Chinese FA Cups and one Super Cup with Guangzhou Evergrande as well as having spells in Japan with FC Tokyo, Omiya Ardija, and Gamba Osaka. After 12 years abroad Kim will be a K League player for the first time but it won't be the first time to play under Hong. The two have worked together before for the national team, such as for the 2009 U20 World Cup, the 2012 London Olympics, and the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Last season Ulsan had the second meanest defence in K League with just 41 goals conceded. With the signing of the 89 times capped Kim Young-gwon, the Horangi might just move up to first. 

K League, Incheon returns for two Lees

Former Korean international midfielder Lee Myung-joo is returning to K League after two years in the UAE with Al Wahda. Lee Myung-joo won the Rookie of the Year award in his first year with Pohang in 2012, scoring five goals and laying on six assists in 35 games. He also had spells with FC Seoul and Asan Mugunghwa to register 27 goals and 27 assists in 152 K League appearances. Overseas, Lee has been a key player in the United Arab Emirates, including Al Ain from 2014 to 2017 and Al Wahda from 2020 to 2021. Lee Myung-joo is already a proven resource in the K League and a versatile player who can play as a defensive or attacking midfielder and is expected to be a key player for Incheon United this season.

Another Lee returning to Korea with Incheon United is Lee Yong-jae. Lee was part of Watford's Youth Team in 2007 as part of the Korea Football Association's overseas study program and, as a full professional, has had spells in France and Japan. Lee Yong-jae was part of the 2014 Asian Games gold medal-winning team at and so should feel right at home in the city he won a gold medal with eight years ago.

Youngblood returning to K League: Kim Kyu-hyeong, Kim Hyeon-woo, Oh In-pyo, Min Sung-jun

There is a handful of exciting youngsters who made their debuts abroad who have signed for K League clubs this winter. Jeju United have Kim Kyu-hyeong on their books, a player who was at Ulsan in 2018 but went to Croatia with Dinamo Zagreb before eventually signing on a permanent deal. After playing for several other teams in Croatia, Kim is readying himself for a first season in K League with Nam Ki-il's Jeju United. 

Likewise, defender Kim Hyun-woo, who had been on loan to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia right after joining Ulsan in 2018, and defender Oh In-pyo, who had been on loan to LASK Linz in Austria, are also K League-bound. Both are players who fans will be looking forward to seeing play having come through the youth ranks with the Horangi and represented the national team at youth level.

Goalkeeper Min Sung-joon left for the J2 League with Montedio Yamagata immediately after joining Incheon in 2020. Since then, he has returned to the K League for the first time in two years and will be looking to break into the first team.

[READ: Records & Milestones in K League 2022]