The gap continues to widen rather than narrow. Before the 14th round, the gap between the second-place teams was 11 points. Now, the gap has widened to 13 points.
‘Absolute favorites’ Ulsan Hyundai continue to soar. Ulsan recorded its second six-game winning streak of the season on Nov. 21 against Suwon Samsung. The 3-2 victory gave them 12 wins, one draw, and 37 points. The second-place group of FC Seoul, Jeju United, and Pohang Steelers are all on 24 points. All three teams managed to collect a single point last weekend. Sixth-place Daegu FC (20 points) and seventh-place Jeonbuk Hyundai (18 points) are unbeaten in their last three games (2 wins, 1 draw) and four games (2 wins, 2 draws), respectively, but at least they don’t pose a threat to Ulsan. It’s just a mid-table battle.
What’s even more encouraging is that they’ve changed their star players every game. At the start of the season, In-Ju-gyu and Rubik’s Cube were hot, then Bako took over for Batong. Now, after a break, Martin Adam and Rubikson have reheated. Even center back Kim Young-kwon joined the scoring streak. Lee and Rubiksson now have six goals apiece, Bacco has five, and Martin Adam has three. In terms of assists, Kim Min-hyuk (3), Martin Adam, Seol Young-woo, and Park Yong-woo (2+) have been specialists.
The defense, anchored by national team captain Cho Hyun-woo in goal and Kim Young-kwon in the center, is also unwavering. Captain Jung Seung-hyun has returned from injury, but Kim Ki-hee has been so steady in defense that he hasn’t been given many chances. It’s a testament to their depth.
Head coach Hong Myung-bo holds the key. This is Hong’s third year in the K League. In his first year, the team finished second and failed to break through Jeonbuk’s barrier, but last year they won their first K League title in 17 years. This season is even steeper. There is no disagreement that he is the best coach in the K League at this point. The scent of a master is also wafting around the stadium.
As with any organization, the relationship between a coach and his players is like a rubber band. If it is too tight, it will break, and if it is too loose, it will not work. The key to keeping it taut is the coach’s know-how. For Hong, the answer lies in discipline within autonomy.
“You have to clearly distinguish between the time you need to stay focused and the time you don’t. In order to be focused, you have to release it all the time. You can’t be focused 24 or 48 hours a day. In order to be focused, you need to be as free as possible when you’re not working. I have two to four hours of concentration a week when I’m training for an opponent. Other than that, I’m just having fun and playing soccer.”안전놀이터
The secret to a one-man show. Of course, the coach can’t do everything alone. The players’ sense of professionalism is just as strong. That’s why Kim Young-kwon, a 33-year-old senior, plays full-time in every game. Thorough recovery and self-care have lightened Hong’s step.
The word ‘complacency’ is not in Hong’s vocabulary. “Thirteen points off the pace” is not in his mind. “Right now, the FA Cup is waiting for us. The goal is to win every game,” he repeats.
Ulsan will play their FA Cup round of 16 match against the second-tier Jeonnam Dragons away from home on the 24th. On the 28th, they host Daejeon Hana Citizens, who handed Ulsan their only loss of the year, in the 15th round of the K League 1. In the FA Cup, Ataru, who has recovered from injury, and players like Bojanic, Yoon Il-rok, and others with fewer appearances will be given a chance. It’s a different kind of family.