After another K League heartbreaker, Ulsan coach sees better things ahead

SEOUL-- Not all close calls are created equal, at least in the mind of Ulsan Hyundai FC head coach Hong Myung-bo.

His K League 1 club finished in second place for a record 10th time Sunday despite beating Daegu FC 2-0 at home in Ulsan, some 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors won a record fifth consecutive title with a 2-0 victory over Jeju United, and Ulsan have now ended up as runners-up to Jeonbuk for three years in a row.

Ulsan took care of business with their win, but they also needed Jeju to beat Jeonbuk to complete the final-day rally. Instead, Ulsan fell two points back of Jeonbuk, 76-74.

This was Hong's first season as Ulsan's boss. Ulsan had parted ways with Kim Do-hoon after unsuccessful bids for their first K League championship since 2005. In 2019, Ulsan lost the final match of the season to Pohang Steelers by 4-1, when a draw would have ended the drought. Then last year, they lost to Jeonbuk in the penultimate match of the season and finished three points behind the champions.

Hong told reporters Sunday he felt this year's club was "much different" than previous editions on many levels.

"In many aspects, I think we had the best performance in the league this year," Hong said. "I am proud of having coached these players this season. We overcame so much adversity to get to this point, and I am pleased that we closed out the season with a win at home."

Challenges included some tight match schedules. Ulsan had the shortest offseason in the K League, because they won the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League title in December 2020 and got to represent the AFC at the FIFA Club World Cup in February this year. The K League season kicked off on March 1.

"It was not an easy start to the season," Hong said. "And when I first took over the team, there were players who wanted to leave. It was difficult to bring the guys on the same page."

Ulsan had an enviable depth of talent up and down the squad. But the downside to that is they often lost a handful of players to the national team. While other K League clubs used international breaks to train, Ulsan were left shorthanded.

And Ulsan stumbled immediately after an international layoff in October. They had a chance to pull off a treble, or winning three major trophies in one season, when they reached the semifinals of both the AFC Champions League and the FA Cup, in addition to leading the K League 1. But within a seven-day span in late October, they were eliminated from both tournaments while also falling from first place in the league.

"We were helpless (during breaks), but I made sure I communicated with my players and shared my vision for the future," Hong said. "And I think our team has become even stronger than I'd expected."

But Hong readily conceded defeat to Jeonbuk, saying, "We weren't good enough."

"We didn't give our fans the result they wanted," the coach continued. "It's championship or bust. And we didn't get it done."

Ulsan still have strong pieces in place that should keep their contention window open for a few more years. Forward Lee Dong-jun, 24, emerged as the league MVP candidate in his first season with Ulsan, while the likes of Won Du-jae and Lee Dong-gyeong, both still 24, have already played for senior national teams. Forward Oh Se-hun and defender Seol Young-woo, the two goal scorers Sunday, are other members of Ulsan's youthful core at 22 and 23, respectively. Ulsan have also been linked with center back Kim Young-gwon, a long-time national team mainstay.

"We're bound to experience failures along the way, and it's all part of the process," Hong said. "I'll try to build an even better team for next year."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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