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NEWS

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2024 K League 1 Season Preview

league 2024.02.27   I   hits 404


The 2024 Hana Bank K League season could be one of the most enthralling ever and with a three or four-horse title race. The race for the top half and AFC Champions League football will be extremely competitive too with more than half of the teams in the division feeling as though they have a genuine chance of qualifying for continental football. Here's all you need to know about the 12 teams of K League 1.

Format

The K League 1 season is played over 38 rounds, 33 as part of the regular season, and five in K League "Final," with the 12 teams playing each other three times and then another five thereafter. The league is then split into two after the regular season, into Final A and Final B, and teams in each half of the table play each other once more.

The winners qualify for the AFC Champions League Elite, as do the Korea Cup (formerly FA Cup) winners if they also finish in the top four. Otherwise, it's ACL2. The K League 1 runners-up also earn an ACLE place, while third qualifies for ACL2. Fourth would become an ACL2 spot if any of the top three win the Korea Cup.

At the other end of the table, the team that finishes 12th is relegated to K League 2; 10th, and 11th then enter the Promotion-Relegation Playoffs against teams from K League 2.

Daegu FC



Manager: Choi Won-kwon | Captain: Hong Chul | Nickname: Sky Blues | Est: 2002 | Mascot(s): Rica, Victo | Stadium: DGB Daegu Bank Park (2019, 12,415)

Founded in 2002, Daegu FC are one of the league's oldest citizen-owned clubs, where funding for the team comes primarily from the local government. Daegu suffered relegation in 2013 but, after three seasons in the lower tier, they returned to the top flight stronger than ever. The club lifted its first piece of silverware in 2018, beating Ulsan Hyundai over two legs in the FA Cup Final and subsequently earning AFC Champions League qualification for the first time. In 2020, Daegu FC finished qualified for the AFC Champions League Group Stage through league positioning for the first time before setting a new league finish record in 2021 by ending the campaign in third. However, while 2022 did see them progress through to the AFC Champions League knockout stages and also into the semifinals of the FA Cup, their league form was of contrast and saw Choi Won-kwon step in as manager later in the season. Choi, a club legend as a player, remains in charge and guided the club to a top-six finish last season. The aim for 2024 is to qualify for the AFC Champions League after a two-year absence.

Honours: Promotion Winners (2016), FA Cup (2018)
Highest K League 1 Finish: 3rd (2021)
2023 Finish: 6th

Daejeon Hana Citizen


Manager: Lee Min-sung | Captain: Lee Soon-min | Nickname: Purples, Citizen | Est: 1997 | Mascot: Jaju | Rivals: Suwon Samsung Bluewings | Stadium: Daejeon World Cup Stadium (2001, 40,535)

Daejeon Citizen were founded in 1997 as a team for the citizens of Daejeon and owned by a consortium of local companies. When K League was decentralised, and teams didn't play at "home" stadiums as such, and teams from all around the country playing at the city's Hanbat Stadium, it was clear that the citizens of Daejeon wanted a professional football team. Thus, in 1997, Daejeon Citizen was born. It then became a citizen club (funded by the local government) in 2006 but the 2020 season was the start of a new era for Daejeon following a takeover from Hana Financial Group, with "Hana" added to the team's name. Daejeon first suffered relegation in 2013 and then 2015, with a 2014 K League Challenge (second division) title sandwiched in the middle. The club finally sealed a long-awaited return to the top flight in 2022 after overcoming Gimcheon Sangmu 6-1 across two legs in the Promotion-Relegation Playoff. Relegation was avoided with relative ease last year, but this year the aim is to qualify for the AFC Champions League.

Honours: Promotion Playoff Winners (2022), K League 2 Winners (2014), FA Cup (2001)
Highest K League 1 Finish: 6th (2003, 2007)
2023 Finish: 8th 

Gangwon FC



Manager: Yoon Jong-hwan | Captain: Han Kook-young | Nickname: Bears | Est: 2008 | Mascot: Gang-woongi | Stadium(s): Songam Sports Town, Chuncheon (2009, 20,000), Gangneung Civic Stadium (1984, 22,333)

Owned by the provincial government of Gangwon, Gangwon FC were founded as a club at the end of 2008 and began competing in the K League in 2009. The club spent three seasons in the second tier from 2014 to 2016 following relegation in 2013 before triumphing over Seongnam FC in the playoffs to regain their top-flight status. Gangwon FC are still yet to lift silverware but finished in the top half for only the third time in their history in 2022. The 2023 season saw the Bears survive a relegation scare, eventually overcoming Gimpo FC in the playoffs. In what will be Yoon Jong-hwan's first full season as manager, Gangwon will be looking for a more comfortable campaign than last with a place in the top six a likely target.

Honours: Promotion Playoff Winners (2016)
Highest K League 1 Finish: 6th (2017, 2019, 2022)
2023 Finish: 11th

Gimcheon Sangmu



Manager: Chung Jung-yong | Captain: Kim Hyeon-wook | Est: 2021 | Mascot: Shyu-ung | Stadium: Gimcheon Civic Stadium (2000, 25,000)

Gimcheon Sangmu are the league's military side, with a squad made up of loaned-out professional K League players undertaking their 20-month national service. The team moved from Sangju to Gimcheon in 2020 and had to drop into the second tier for the 2021 season. In its previous guise as Sangju Sangmu, the team suffered relegation twice before but were able to earn promotion at the first time of asking on both occasions. The trend continued in 2021 with Gimcheon winning K League 2 and with a nine-point cushion but were relegated via the playoffs in 2022. After some last-day drama, Gimcheon were crowned K League 2 champions in 2023 and again sealed an instant return to the top flight. Led by Chung Jung-yong, the army side will be looking to avoid relegation with the manager tasked with interesting the fresh batch of recruits before the mid-season exodus of players returning to the parent clubs.


Honours: K League 2 Championship (2021)
2022 Finish: 11th (K League 1)

Gwangju FC


Manager: Lee Jung-hyo | Captain: Ahn Young-kyu | Nickname(s): Yellows, Bitgoeul, Griffins | Est: 2010 | Mascot: Boni | Stadium: Gwangju Football Stadium (2020, 10,007)

When army team Gwangju Sangmu departed the city at the end of 2010, Gwangju FC were born. Since playing their first season back in 2011, citizen club Gwangju are one of just a handful of clubs to have been relegated to the second tier on more than one occasion since K League 2 was formed in 2013. In 2019, Gwangju were runaway champions of K League 2, comfortably winning promotion back to K League 1, and in 2020 finished in the top half of K League 1 for the first time. That year also saw the team move to a football-specific stadium after 10 years at Gwangju World Cup Stadium. After finding themselves back in K League 2 in 2022, Gwangju the title again and under under the stewardship of Lee Jung-hyo, finished third in K League 1 last year and qualified for the very first AFC Champions League Elite. It's the club's first foray into continental football.


Honours: K League 2 Winners (2019, 2022), Promotion Playoff Winners (2014)
Highest K League 1 Finish: 3rd (2023)
2023 Finish: 3rd 

Incheon United


Manager: Jo Sung-hwan | Captain: Lee Myung-joo | Nickname(s): Neroazzurre (Blue-Black), Durumi (Cranes) | Est: 2003 | Mascot: Yuti | Rivals: FC Seoul, Suwon Samsung Bluewings | Stadium: Incheon Football Stadium (Sungui Arena Park) (2012, 20,891)

Incheon United played their first season back in 2004 and by their second they managed to reach the Championship Playoff Final where they finished as runners-up to Ulsan Hyundai. The Blue-Black have not reached those heights since but did flirt with the prospect of glory once more in 2015 when they made it to the FA Cup Final, losing to Gyeongin Derby rivals FC Seoul. Incheon had become known as relegation escape artists with their biggest scare to date coming in 2020. But Jo Sung-hwan turned things and the club around and even guided Incheon to the top six in 2022 and AFC Champions League qualification. Incheon were desperately unlucky not to advance to the knockouts of the ACL, too, after four wins. Club legend Stefan Mugoša returned midway through last season and after another top-six finish in 2023, there's a real feel-good factor around Sungui Arena Park these days.


Highest K League 1 Finish: 2nd (2005)
2023 Finish: 5th

Jeju United


Manager: Kim Hak-bum | Captain: Lim Chae-min | Nickname(s): Islanders, Tangerines | Est: 1982 | Mascot: Gamgyuli | Rivals: Bucheon FC 1995 | Stadium: Jeju World Cup Stadium (2001, 35,657)

Originally founded as Bucheon SK and based on the mainland, SK Corporation-owned Jeju United are one of the league's oldest teams. Now located on the beautiful island of Jeju off the south coast, the Tangerines boast of one of the most picturesque stadiums in Korea - Jeju World Cup Stadium in the city of Seogwipo. It's been something of a rollercoaster over the last few years with relegation in 2019 then the K League 2 title and promotion in 2020. Likewise, the 2021 season saw the islanders finish fourth, then fifth in 2022 but dropped to ninth in 2023. Experienced coach Kim Hak-bum is the club's new manager, tasked with taking these once ACL regulars back to the upper reaches of the table.


Honours: K League 1 Winners (1989)*, K League 2 Winners (2020)
2023 Finish: 9th

*As Bucheon SK

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors



Manager: Dan Petrescu | Captain: Kim Jin-su | Nickname: Green Warriors | Est: 1994 | Mascot(s): Cho-a, Nighty, Search | Rivals: Jeonnam Dragons, FC Seoul, Suwon Samsung Bluewings | Stadium:  Jeonju World Cup Stadium (2001, 42,477)

Founded in 1994, it was not until the 21st Century that Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors began to claim silverware. The last decade has seen them cement themselves as a K League powerhouse, lifting all nine of their titles in the span of thirteen seasons. In 2021, with club legend Kim Sang-sik as manager, Jeonbuk sealed a league record fifth consecutive title, doing so on the final day. However, it's Ulsan who have finished top for the last two years and so Jeonbuk, under new manager Dan Petrescu, aim to reclaim their spot at the K League 1 summit. The winter transfer window has been a busy one for Jeonbuk, signing proven K League 1 quality with the likes of Tiago Orobó, Hernandes, Kwon Chang-hoon, Kim Tae-hwan, and Lee Young-jae. 

Honours: K League 1 Winners (2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021), FA Cup (2000, 2003, 2005, 2020, 2022), AFC Champions League (2006, 2016)
2023 Finish: 4th


Pohang Steelers



Manager: Park Tae-ha | Captain: Wanderson | Nickname: Steelers | Est: 1973 | Mascot: Swidoli | Rivals: Ulsan Hyundai | Stadium: Pohang Steelyard (1990, 15,521)

One of the founding members of the division, and a club that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, POSCO-owned Pohang Steelers, are one of the most successful sides in both K League and AFC Champions League history. Pohang last season won their first piece of silverware in 10 years by lifting the FA Cup but with the manager who guided the club to that triumph leaving, not to mention several key players, the 2024 season will be one of transition for the Steelers. They have the 2024-2025 AFC Champions League Elite to look forward to but Park Tae-ha will be determined to get his side in shape well before then.

Honours: K League 1 Winners (1986, 1988, 1992, 2007, 2013), FA Cup (1996, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2023), AFC Champions League (1996-97, 1997-98, 2009), League Cup (1993, 2009)
2023 Finish: 2nd


FC Seoul



Manager: Kim Gi-dong | Captain: Ki Sung-yueng | Est: 1983 | Mascot: SSID | Rivals: Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Incheon United, Seongnam FC, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, FC Anyang | Stadium: Seoul World Cup Stadium (2001, 66,704)

FC Seoul are the capital city's top-flight team and have enjoyed various domestic successes over the years under different guises. Life began as Lucky-Goldstar in the early 1980s before becoming the LG Cheetahs. The Cheetahs would win three K League titles before being re-founded as FC Seoul in 2004. The club then lifted the K League title three times more, in 2010, 2012, and on the last day of the 2016 season in dramatic circumstances away to then-reigning champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Since then, FC Seoul has finished fifth, eleventh, third, ninth, seventh, ninth, and seventh last year. But with the arrival of Jesse Lingard over the winter, and the appointment of highly-rated manager Kim Gi-dong, FC Seoul are determined to return to prominence. 

Honours: K League 1 Winners (1985, 1990, 2000, 2010, 2012, 2016), FA Cup (1998, 2015), League Cup (2006, 2010), National Football Championship (1988)
2023 Finish: 7th

Suwon FC



Manager: Kim Eun-jung | Captain: Lee Yong | Est: 2003 | Mascot: Jangin-janggun | Rivals: Suwon Samsung Bluewings | Stadium: Suwon Civic Stadium (1971, 11,808)

Citizen club Suwon FC were established long before K League 2 began in 2013, competing in the now-defunct National League (3rd tier) up until then. Two years later Suwon had reached the promised land of K League 1 by defeating giants Busan IPark in the playoffs. Relegation followed a year later but Suwon could sample top-flight football once more having won the Promotion Playoffs for a second time in 2020 in dramatic circumstances. The Castle Park club strengthened significantly upon their second promotion and went on to secure a historic top-half finish in 2021. Last season, though, Suwon had to go through the Promotion-Relegation Playoffs but managed to overcome Busan IPark over two legs. Manager Kim Do-kyun left for Seoul E-Land and in has come K League legend Kim Eun-jung. Kim has coached Korea's U20 team but is managing at club level for the first time.

Honours: Promotion Playoff Winners (2015, 2020)
Highest K League 1 Finish: 5th (2021)
2023 Finish: 10th

Ulsan HD



Manager: Hong Myung-bo | Captain: Kim Kee-hee | Nickname: Horangi (Tigers) | Est: 1983 | Mascot: Geonho | Rivals: Pohang Steelers | Stadium: Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium (2001, 44,102)

Now rebranded as Ulsan HD, owned by Hyundai Heavy Industries, Ulsan also make up part of the K League's founding members club, having been established in 1983 as the Hyundai Horang-i. Until the last two seasons, Ulsan's success has centred around cup competitions having won the FA Cup in 2017 and a second ACL title in 2020. In the league, after coming agonisingly close in 2019, 2020, and 2021, the Horangi finally made good on their potential to claim their third K League title in 2022 and their first since 2005. Another K League title followed in 2023, the first time the club had one back-to-back league championships. Under the stewardship of Korean football legend Hong Myung-bo, Ulsan will be hoping to go from strength to strength as they look to successfully defend their league title as well as compete for the other two trophies on offer.

Honours: K League 1 Winners (1996, 2005, 2022, 2023), FA Cup (2017), AFC Champions League (2012, 2020), League Cup (1986, 1995, 1998, 2007, 2011)
2023 Finish: 1st