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K League 2 is back, and you're all invited to the party!

K League 2 is back, and you're all invited to the party!
K League 2 is back, and you're all invited to the party!

K League 2 returns this Friday, and the competition's prestige is boosted by the presence of three Asian champions for the first time. Over half the clubs harbor genuine promotion aspirations, making this one of the most unpredictable seasons to date. The invites are out, so get down to your local stadium and enjoy the party.

In the 18 seasons between 1991 and 2008, three clubs dominated the top tier of Korean football. Seongnam FC (as they're currently known), won seven championships in that period. Suwon Samsung Bluewings won four, and Busan IPark (as they're now known) were champions twice. Starting this weekend, all three clubs will compete in K League 2 for the first time together.

But don't expect the division's regional clubs to roll out the red card for three former powerhouses of Korean football. Reputations mean nothing here. In only their second second season at this level, Gimpo FC finished third. One of the two new clubs, Chungbuk Cheongju, secured eight points more than Seongnam last year.

Seven different clubs spent time at the summit of K League 2. Busan IPark enjoyed the longest unbeaten spell, going nine straight weeks in first spot until the final weekend. A meltdown worthy of a Netflix documentary is the reason they're still in the second tier. FC Anyang were top approaching the mid-point, then dropped to 8th, before rallying in the final weeks but fell short. For Gyeongnam FC, it was even more chaotic. Seol Ki-Hyeon's side were top in July, out of playoff spots in October, and then back in it.

On the recent edition of the KLU podcast, previewing the K League 2 season, Matthew Binns, Paul Neat, and I each predicted nine clubs to be in with a realistic shot at promotion. The only thing lacking is a relegation battle at the opposite end. While no team will want to finish 13th, there's no punishment for a club that tanks early. It would be spectacular to have a nine-team promotion race and a four-team battle to avoid automatic relegation.

Here are a few things to look out for in K League 2 this year.

Who are the main challengers?

The players and management atBusan IPark must wake up in a cold sweat every night of the week. Park Jin-sub's title challengers dismantled Gimcheon Sangmu to go top after Round 29, went on a nine-game unbeaten run, and had the trophy and automatic promotion in their grasp heading into the penultimate weekend. Gimcheon's failure to beat Gyeongnam handed Busan the opportunity to go up with a game to spare. Instead, they went to Jeonnam Dragons and lost 3-0.

Destiny was still in their own hands. All they needed was to beat Chungbuk Cheongju on the final day. With 93 minutes on the clock, Busan led 1-0, dominating possession and territory for the entire game. But with just their 4th effort on goal, Cheongju equalized through Jorge. Gimheon took their place in K League 1 and Busan headed for the playoffs. It only got worse from there.

Busan took a slender one-goal advantage to Suwon for the second leg and the tie looked over when Choi Jun scored early for the visitors. Suwon mounted a scarcely believable comeback with 12 minutes remaining, overturning a 3-1 aggregate deficit to take the game to extra time. Having led 1-0 on the day, Busan imploded to lose 5-2. But they will start this season as joint-favorites.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings are the other main contender. This is unchartered territory for one of the country's biggest clubs, sampling life in the exotic second tier for the first time. A decade ago, the Bluewings were domestic and continental heavyweights, with average home crowds of 23,000 fans. On Sunday, they'll open the new season at home to Chungnam Asan FC.

Managed by the legendary Yeom Ki-hun, Suwon have a team stacked with experience and K League 1 talent. Their defense is weak and questions remain over the suitability of Yeom in the dugout. The atmosphere inside the Suwon World Cup Stadium has the potential to turn toxic if results and performances don't match expectations. However, Suwon should be in the title picture by November.

Who are the playoff contenders?

Gimpo FC finished third in 2023 and look on course for a similar result this season. They kept hold of Colombian striker Luis Mina, who topped the scoring charts with 16 and added the Kosovan forward Leonard Pllana from Jeonnam Dragons. Pllana scored eight times and provided seven assists as the Dragons fell short of a play-off spot.

Elsewhere, expectations are running high in Mokdong after a fascinating winter recruitment drive bySeoul E-Land. The Leopards were awful last season, losing eight of their last nine to finish 11th. However, former Suwon FC boss Kim Do-kyun is at the helm and the club added FC Seoul legend Osmar, Peter Makrilos from Chungbuk Cheongju, and Suwon FC's Jeong Jae-yong to the squad.

Seongnam FC are being tipped as a potential dark horses after adding 12 new players in the winter break. Several of those are from direct promotion rivals. Gyeongnam FC is under new management but will be without Gleyson (13 goals) and Mo Jae-hyeon (6 goals and 6 assists). Bucheon FC 1995, Jeonnam Dragons (somehow keeping hold of 28-goal contribution hero Valdivia), and FC Anyang are also in the hunt.

Who's going down?

Relegation can be catastrophic for the unlucky clubs, but it is a feature of football and most clubs must prepare for its possibility. However, there is still no demotion to K3 from K League 2, and it is a great shame, provided the third-tier champions were equipped to make the step up.Ansan Greeners would have been favorites for the drop only avoiding the dreaded 13th spot on the last day of the season. Cheonan City FC, Chungnam Asan, and Chungbuk Cheonjgu can also breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

Which stadiums are the best?

Busan IPark and Suwon Samsung play at 2002 World Cup Stadiums and the latter, especially, is a cracking football ground. Gimpo FC are redeveloping their intimate little stadium and won't return home until May. Anyang Stadium comes with a running track but this problem is negated by the presence of three pitchside temporary stands. A giant electronic magpie rises behind the goals when Seongnam score.

The majority of the grounds have a running track and several (Cheonan City, Cheongju, Chungnam Asan, Ansan Greeners, and Seoul E-Land) have no temporary seating like Anyang. But the best stadium is possiblyChangwon Football Centre, home of Gyeongnam FC. A football-specific stadium in a quiet neighborhood on a hill overlooking the city, and a capacity of 15,071. Perfect.

Where are the stadiums located?

Great news for readers in Seoul and south Gyeonggi province. Seven of the 13 clubs are located in the Seoul Capital Area and another two (Cheonan City and Chungnam Asan) are near Seoul Metro's Line 1. There are plenty of doubleheader opportunities with other clubs in this league, and K League 1.

What are the stand-out fixtures in March?

Suwon's K League 2 debut against Chungnam Asan is intriguing but the match of the opening week is undoubtedly Busan IPark versus Seoul E-Land (3/3). The following Sunday, E-Land welcome Suwon Bluewings to Mokdong (3/10), another early test of Seoul's playoff credentials. At the end of March, Seongnam entertain Gimpo in Tancheon (3/30), and Gyeongnam and Busan make the long trek north to Bucheon and Suwon (both 3/31), respectively.