Live sports returned very, very early on Friday morning, with the start of the Korean first division, the K League 1’s season. People from all over the world were tuning in, including several Waking The Red staffers, who got up for the 6 a.m. EST kickoff.
Part of the attraction for the match in this country was not only the return of live sports, but a debut for Canadian international Doneil Henry in his new colours. Henry, formerly of Toronto FC and more recently the Vancouver Whitecaps, put in a strong performance for his new side, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, but was on the losing end of a 1-0 match against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
I have a newfound love of Korean football, and while doing research on the top flight, found some similarities between clubs over there and certain MLS sides, both on and off the pitch.
Busan IPark — New England Revolution
Busan IPark are one of the original five K League 1 teams from 1983, one of three that still operate, and one of the two that are in the top flight along with Pohang Steelers.
The New England Revolution are similar in the sense that they’re one of the original MLS teams from the inaugural 1996 season. Busan IPark haven’t won the league title since 1997, so their title drought is also similar to that of the Revolution, who have competed since 1996 but never won an MLS Cup.
Both sides seem to be on an upwards trajectory, as the Revolution made the playoffs in 2019 for the first time since 2015, while Busan IPark were relegated for the first time in 2015 before being promoted back up in 2019.
Daegu FC — DC United
Both Daegu FC and DC United used to play in former World Cup stadiums. Daegu played at Daegu Stadium, used for the 2002 World Cup, while DC United used to call RFK Stadium home, used at the 1994 World Cup.
Both have moved out in recent years into new, soccer-specific stadiums. DGB Daegu Bank Park was opened in 2019, and Audi Field (pictured below), was opened in 2018—a match also remembered for being Wayne Rooney’s DC United debut. Canadian Alphonso Davies also scored in that match.
Gangwon FC — Philadelphia Union
Both Gangwon FC and the Philadelphia Union were founded in 2008, and have also not really had a major impact in their respective leagues.
Gangwon spent a few years in K League 2 after being relegated in 2013, but since coming back up to the top flight in 2017, they’ve been a consistent mid-table team. Philadelphia started playing games in 2010, and since then have made the playoffs a few times, but never gone past the conference semifinals.
Another little thing to link them is that both of their crests have the word “Union” on it.
Gwangju FC — Inter Miami
Both of these teams are the new(ish) kids on the block. While Inter Miami were just starting their inaugural MLS season before the COVID-19 put the season on hold, Gwangju are the newest club currently in K League 1, founded in 2011, and are also back in the top flight for the first time since 2017 after winning K League 2 in 2019.
Both are yet to win a major competition but that’s understandable as they aim to get their first on the board. They both also have some important international players on their squad. Former San Jose Earthquake and LAFC forward Marco Urena is among the international players on Gwangju’s books, while Miami boast the likes of Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro and Panama international Roman Torres, among others.
Incheon United — Montreal Impact
Both Incheon and Montreal are among the biggest cities in their respective countries. Incheon is South Korea’s third-largest city with a population just under three million, and Montreal is the second-biggest in Canada with around 1.8 million people.
Both Incheon United and the Montreal Impact play in soccer-specific stadiums with a capacity around 20,000—Incheon Football Stadium has a capacity of 20,891, while Stade Saputo holds just 90 less fans at 20,801.
Other similarities are that both sides wear blue and black vertical stripes at home and white/ grey vertical stripes for their away kit. Both also lost in the final of their respective domestic cup competitions in 2015, Incheon in the Korean FA Cup to FC Seoul and Montreal in the Canadian Championship to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors — Seattle Sounders
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Seattle Sounders fans have had a lot to cheer about over the last few years, as both are the modern dynasty in their respective leagues and reigning champions.
Jeonbuk have won the league seven times, tied for the most in K League 1 history, and all of them since 2009. They won in 2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 and were runners up in ‘12 and ‘16. Far and away the most dominant team in recent memory.
Seattle won MLS Cup in 2016 and 2019, both against Toronto FC, and were runners up in 2017 to... Toronto FC. They are the closest we’ve seen to that level of dominance in MLS over the last few years.
Both also wear very bright green uniforms.
Pohang Steelers — Toronto FC
Pohang Steelers are the only K League 1 team that has been in the top flight every year since the league’s formation back in 1983. They're also one of the most successful South Korean clubs overall, having won 5 league titles, 4 FA Cups and a joint-record 3 AFC Champions League titles—tied with Sebastian Giovinco’s Al-Hilal, who are the current holders of the trophy.
Similarly, Toronto FC have been winning trophies somewhat regularly since their first season in 2007, racking up one MLS Cup, one Supporters Shield and a record seven Canadian Championships.
TFC won the treble in 2017, the first MLS team to achieve such a feat, and reached the final of the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League, only the third MLS club to do so. They also came the closest to winning it, losing on penalties to Chivas.
Toronto FC also were one of the first MLS teams to play in a soccer-specific stadium with the opening of BMO Field. Pohang were the first to do that in South Korea with the opening of Pohang Steel Yard in 1990.
Sangju Sangmu FC — LAFC
Sangju Sangmu have a fascinating history, and are a team operated by the South Korean military. When K League players are serving their mandatory military service, they are loaned to the club for two years to complete their service before returning to their former teams.
Because of this, I've gone for a team with a manager like a general: LAFC and manager Bob Bradley. Bradley has a no-nonsense approach and isn't afraid to say it as it is, which has been pretty successful throughout his lengthy coaching career.
As mentioned, players are loaned to Sangju when they do military service, similar to how LAFC keep taking established MLS players from other teams, albeit without the military service. LAFC have poached the likes of Latif Blessing, Steven Beitashour and Lee Nguyen from other MLS clubs, among others.
FC Seoul — LA Galaxy
Both FC Seoul and the LA Galaxy area based in one of the biggest cities in their country. Seoul is the capital of South Korea and LA has the second-highest population in the United States.
Both clubs are one of the perennial good teams, and have each won three league titles in the last decade, including both winning in 2012. Seoul won their most recent three titles in 2010, 2012 and 2016, while the Galaxy got theirs in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
Because of the city they play in, they are both able to attract good players.
Seoul have brought notable South Koreans back to the league, including former Arsenal, Monaco and Celta Vigo forward Park Chu-young. He started his career with FC Seoul, moved to Europe in 2008, and returned to the club in 2015.
The LA Galaxy recruit all of the MLS’ biggest stars, such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, among others, and are probably the most recognized team outside of the USA.
Seongnam FC — Houston Dynamo
Seongnam FC, like the Houston Dynamo, are historically one of the better teams, but have struggled in recent years.
Seongnam are tied all-time with 7 K-League 1 titles, but were relegated after the 2016 season and spent two years in K-League 2 before returning to the top flight for 2019.
The Dynamo won the MLS Cup in both of their first two seasons, and although they did win the US Open Cup in 2018, have struggled in the regular season in recent times, missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons.
Both will be hoping for bigger and better things in the coming years as they look to get back to their former glory.
Suwon Samsung Bluewings — Atlanta United
Both Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Atlanta United are the current holders of their domestic cup competitions. Suwon won their record-breaking 5th Korean FA Cup in 2019 over Daejeon Korail.
Atlanta are the reigning champion of the domestic cup in the States, the US Open Cup. They beat Minnesota United in the 2019 final.
We’re starting to stretch it out a bit here...
Ulsan Hyundai — New York Red Bulls
It isn't uncommon for teams in South Korea, both in soccer and otherwise, to use the name of their owners as part of the club's name. We see this with multiple clubs in K League 1, but it is rare or nonexistent in a lot of leagues. The New York Red Bulls are an exception to that, as they're owned by energy drink company Red Bull.
If you have a company name that can pull it off, it’s a brilliant marketing ploy. Start thinking people.