It’s all about Ulsan Hyundai in the K League 1 this season. With three games to go, they’re at the top of the table. They also made history by winning back-to-back K League titles for the first time since their founding.
The nerves were not enough to keep them from falling off the cliff in another stage, the Asian Champions League (ACL). Ulsan won the ACL in 2020. In 2021, they reached the quarterfinals. But last year, they were eliminated in the group stage. The 2023-2024 season, which was reorganized as the Chuseok Festival, has been a nightmare.
Ulsan was brought to its knees in the fourth match of the ACL Group I against Johor Darul Taqzim (Malaysia) at the Sultan Stadium in Johor on July 7. Two counterattacks and they’re down. It’s bad luck. Last year’s ACL group stage was marred by the coronavirus pandemic, bringing all four teams together in one location to fight for a spot in the round of 16. Ulsan’s group was held in the Johor region. Ulsan was swept in two games by Johor, who had home field advantage. “This is the team,” said head coach Hong Myung-bo.
Two games remain. Kawasaki needs just one more win to end the race for first place. Ulsan is currently in second place. They have the same number of points as Johor but are ahead on ‘winner-take-all’. Ulsan hosted Johor in the third round and won 3-1. The only ‘if’ is a win. It’s realistic to expect to qualify for the round of 16, which is only available to three of the top two teams in the group. Ulsan will face BG Pathum away on Nov. 26 and Kawasaki at home on Dec. 12.
Hong has set the group stage as his primary goal for the ACL. From the round of 16 onwards, they can challenge next year after rebuilding through the winter transfer market. Hong brought out the “whip” in a meaningful statement after the Johor game. “We need to overcome this situation to grow to the next level. If we don’t grow in this situation, we may encounter a bad situation. It’s a pity.” Players who don’t take their chances have “no future” in Ulsan.