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As South Korea visits USWNT, domestic league back home is in flux

The South Korean women’s national team arrived in the United States on Sunday, two days removed from the players having played in round 26 of the domestic WK-League. With two rounds remaining before the playoffs, WK-League finds itself in an unexpected point of transition, perhaps even crisis, as one of its biggest teams will cease to exist at the end of this season.

WK-League, in the midst of its ninth season of existence, has played a key role in the growth of the South Korean women’s national team program and the success it has achieved over the last few years, including a second round appearance at the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Prior to 2015, Korea had appeared only once in the Women’s World Cup, in 2003. Qualifying for 2003 was a result of a healthy dose of luck. Once at the tournament, the Koreans bowed out quickly with three forgettable appearances and only one goal scored. The squad itself was a reflection of the state of domestic soccer at the time: fourteen players from the two professional teams that existed and six collegiate and high school players.

The first full season of play for WK-League took place in 2009 with six teams.The two biggest were Hyundai Steel Red Angels, the forerunners in women’s soccer, founded in 1993; and Daekyo Kangaroos, founded in 2002 by the education focused company.

In addition to backing its team, Daekyo was the first top level sponsor of the league, which was originally known as the Daekyo WK-League (now known as the IBK WK-League). The other four teams were Seoul City, Chungnam Ilhwa Chunma, Busan Sangmu (now known as BoeunSangmu) and Suwon FMC.

Of the six original teams, five remain. Chungnam Ilhwa Chunma folded in 2012 when its backers, the Unification Church, pulled their support after the death of Reverend Moon Sun-myung- a big soccer fan. In the interim, two teams were added to the league: Daejeon Sportstoto (now known as Gumi Sportstoto) and Hwacheon KSPO.

The two forerunners, Hyundai Steel and Daekyo, however have remained the dominant forces in WK-League. Hyundai Steel has appeared in all eight Grand Finals, losing the first four and winning the last four. In six of those eight, the two teams faced each other. Daekyo won the first three, while Hyundai Steel has defeated its rivals in each of the last three Grand Finals.

The nature of the rivalry is such that when the two teams meet, it is known as the Wonder Match., and it is nearly always an affair to be watched.

Heading into the 2017 season, Icheon Daekyo was determined to reverse the trend and get back on top of their rivals. More generally, the 2017 season got off to a strong start with the addition of an eighth team, Gyeonju KHNP; backed by the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company which also runs a men’s team in the third tier of Korean soccer.

Predictably, Hyundai Steel and Daekyo have been the dominant forces this season, with the former topping the standings with 64 points through 26 matches and their rivals trailing them in second by 13 points.

If the two teams meet again in the Grand Final this year, however, it will be the final Wonder Match. On August 17th, Daekyo shocked Korean women’s soccer by announcing it was dismantling its women’s soccer team at the end of the 2017 season.

The move comes on the heels of a scandal in Daekyo’s sports group. Three executives were found earlier this year to have established a slush fund into which it paid the salaries of non-existent players that they signed to both the women’s soccer team and to a badminton team. The force of that scandal led Daekyo to pull out of backing both sports.

The disappearance of one of the most legendary teams in Korean women’s soccer history, and the WK-League’s original sponsor, is a blow in more ways than one. It is a morale blow to a league that has continued to show stability and strength and that is producing genuine talent for a surging women’s national team program. It leaves WK-League with one dominant team and nobody to oppose them.

Most importantly, It potentially impacts the continuing development of the national team as IcheonDaekyo’s financial backing has traditionally meant that it, along with Hyundai Steel, has produced much of the talent for the national team.

The side that will play in the U.S. this week features  four IcheonDaekyo players: Kim Hye-yeong, Seo Hyun-sook, Moon Mi-ra and Ji Sun-mi. The 2015 Women’s World Cup team included five IcheonDaekyo players – only two of which are on the current squad, including Lee Eun-mi who no longer plays for IcheonDaekyo.

The Korea Women’s Football Federation (KWFF) has asked Daekyo to find another group to take over the team and is prepared to run the team itself in the interim if necessary, however whether another group can be found that will put as much money into the side as Daekyo has done is doubtful.

In the meantime, the league takes a step backwards after several giant steps forward over the past two years, and is forced to consider how it will ensure competitive balance moving forward. A one team league is less than ideal for growth moving forward.

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