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2023 K League 1 Season Recap

league 2023.12.12   I   hits 692

It's been another memorable season in K League 1. Ulsan Hyundai champions again, the two newly-promoted teams survive for only the third time ever, one even qualifies for the AFC Champions League. But the top flight waves goodbye to a giant following Suwon Samsung Bluewings's shock relegation. KLeague.com takes a look at what the 2023 campaign meant for each club.

Final A

1. Ulsan Hyundai (C)

The 2023 campaign couldn't have gone much better for Ulsan Hyundai, winning a second K League 1 title in as many seasons and even winning the title earlier than last year. This year Ulsan sealed the championship with three games to spare, two more than in 2022 when Hong Myung-bo's men beat Gangwon FC away in Round 37. Ulsan won 23 of their 38 games which is one more than last year but with more draws this season, the Horangi finished on the same number of points (76). In winning the league in consecutive seasons, Ulsan join an elite group of clubs. Only three other clubs have managed to do that - Ilhwa Chunma (modern-day Seongnam FC), from 1993 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2003, Suwon Bluewings in 1998 and 1999, and Jeonbuk in 2014 and 2015 and from 2017 to 2021.

2. Pohang Steelers (ACLE)

Pohang Steelers ended the season as runners-up in K League 1, their best finish to a season since 2013. The Steelers also won the FA Cup, their first trophy in 10 years, and qualify for the new AFC Champions League Elite. It has signaled a steady rise under manager Kim Gi-dong who, after taking over in 2019, guided Pohang to third in 2020, the AFC Champions League Final in 2021, third again in 2022, and then second this season. Testament to Pohang's good season is the number of players named in the season's Best XI; Wanderson, Alex Grant, Oberdan, and Zeca make four.

3. Gwangju FC (ACLE)

Gwangju FC's first season back in the top flight has resulted in the club's best-ever finish to a season and AFC Champions League qualification for the first time in their history. Gwangju won K League 2 at a canter in 2022 and under the leadership of exciting young manager Lee Jung-hyo, have now set the bar even higher. A total of 16 wins, 11 draws, and 11 losses brought 59 points, a club record in the top flight. With Pohang winning the FA Cup and finishing second, an ACLE playoff spot was given to third place meaning that Gwangju could be competing among the continent's very best come next season.

4. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (ACL2)

For Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, fourth place represents a lowest finish to a season since 2008. No silverware for the club is also something that Jeonbuk fans haven't experienced since that same season 15 years ago. The Green Warriors changed manager with former Premier League defender Dan Petrescu taking over from club legend Kim Sang-sik. Petrescu was at least able to guide Jeonbuk into some sort of continental competition with fourth enough for a place in ACL 2.

5. Incheon United

Incheon United may have missed out on ACL qualification for 2024-2025 but fifth place means it's a second year in a row of finishing in the top half. Never before have Incheon earned top-six finishes for two years in a row. Although fifth this season may seem like a step back after fourth last year, Incheon actually won more games this season - 14 compared to 13 in 2022.

6. Daegu FC

After battling relegation in 2022, a top-six finish for Daegu FC represents a positive season. Choi Won-kwon helped steer the club to safety last year, taking the job as caretaker before earning the job full-time in 2023. Prior to 2022, Daegu had spent three straight seasons in Final A and so a return to the top six group will be something that the DGB Daegu Bank Park faithful will be thankful for.

[READ: 2023 K League Award Winners]

Final B

7. FC Seoul

FC Seoul finished top of Final B and had guaranteed seventh place even before the final match of the season. A total of 55 points is more than sixth-place Daegu and much more than the 46 earned in 2022 when safety was only sealed on the final day. Seoul had flirted with the ACL places and looked on course to at least finish in Final A but the club's return to the upper echelons of Korean football will have to wait for now.

8. Daejeon Hana Citizen

Daejeon Hana Citizen will look back on 2023 as a successful season. Safety was sealed with four games to go, striker Tiago Orobo set a new club record for top-flight goals with 17, and Lee Min-sung's men went unbeaten against Ulsan Hyundai, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, FC Seoul, and Suwon Samsung Bluewings - some of the division's big boys and traditional rivals. The 2023 season was Daejeon's first back in the top flight since 2015 and not since 2012 have Daejeon survived relegation from the top flight. With Daejeon also safe, it marks only the third time that both of the newly promoted clubs have avoided relegation in their first season in K League 1. 

9. Jeju United

The 2023 season was Jeju United's third back in K League 1 after winning the second-tier title in 2020. The club parted company with manager Nam Ki-il in the summer and K League legend Jung Jo-gook took over as caretaker and, ultimately, sealed safety with one game to spare after the islanders were dragged into the relegation battle. Onwards and upwards for Jeju United in 2024.

10. Gangwon FC

Gangwon FC will be in K League 1 next year after successfully overcoming Gimpo FC in the playoffs. A 2-1 second-leg win with a brace from Vitor Gabriel retained Gangwon's status as a top-flight club and helped the Bears avoid relegation via the playoffs for the second time in three years. Gangwon went into the final day of the season showdown away to Suwon Bluewings knowing that a loss could've seen them relegated automatically. A run of six games unbeaten to end the campaign, including the playoffs, with three wins and three draws proved crucial. Gangwon survived despite scoring the fewest goals in the league in 2023 with just 30.

11. Suwon FC

Suwon FC ended the season 10th following a final-day draw with Jeju United. Lee Young-jae's equaliser at home to Jeju United gave Suwon the point they needed to avoid automatic relegation. This set up a two-leg playoff with Busan IPark which Kim Do-kyun's team won 6-4 on aggregate, despite losing the first leg and losing Lee Seung-woo to suspension. Suwon then became only the second K League 1 team to lose the first leg then go on to win the tie overall and seal safety, the first being Gangwon FC in 2021. There was no shortage of goals in Suwon FC matches this season with a combined total of 120, one more than last year, which meant that Kim Do-kyun's side saw the league's most goals for the second year in a row. Despite finishing second bottom, Suwon FC will be in K League 1 next year.

12. Suwon Samsung Bluewings (R)

Four-time K League champions, five-time FA Cup winners, and two-time champions of Asia Suwon Samsung Bluewings suffered a shock relegation in 2023. The Bluewings had three managers in charge with Yeom Ki-hun seeing the season out after Lee Byung-keun and Kim Byung-soo had left earlier in the season. Suwon had given themselves some hope heading into the final match of the season, a showdown with Gangwon, after beating FC Seoul in the Super Match in Round 37. But a draw with Gangwon in Round 38, coupled with Suwon FC's 1-1 draw with Jeju United meant that the Bluewings were sent to the second tier.