(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 6-10, 16-19, 23-26)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 5 (Yonhap) — Son Jun-ho, who served as a rock in the midfield for the South Korean football champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, was voted the MVP of the K League 1 on Thursday.
Son, 28, earned the highest individual honor in the league after leading Jeonbuk to a record-setting fourth consecutive championship and eighth overall this year.
Son scored 46 points out of 100 in voting by head coaches, club captains and media. Son edged out Ulsan Hyundai FC striker Junior Negrao, who received 44.83 points after leading the K League 1 with 26 goals in 27 matches.
Son made a successful transition from an attacking midfielder to a defensive midfielder this season. His counting stats, two goals and five assists, don’t jump off the page, but Son led the league in some underlying statistics, such as free kicks and blocked passes, and finished second in total pass attempts.
“This is an unforgettable day. I never dreamed I would ever win an MVP award playing football,” Son said after accepting his trophy. “I think I’ve been honored with this award because I gave my best every match. I will try to be a consistent performer and not end up as a one-hit wonder.”
Son said his assistant coach Kim Sang-sik deserved all the credit for helping him with the positional switch.
“It wasn’t just my own effort. Coach Kim taught me everything, from proper positioning to handling different situations that come up during matches,” Son said after accepting his MVP trophy. “I figured that, if I were to keep growing as a football player, I had to be able to play any position. I tried to give everything I had in every match.”
Kim, a former Jeonbuk player, was one of the top defensive midfielders in his heyday. With head coach Jose Morais having expressed his desire to return to Europe after two seasons on Jeonbuk’s bench, Kim is seen as a leading candidate to succeed Morais.
Son is the third Jeonbuk player to be named MVP, after forward Lee Dong-gook and midfielder Lee Jae-sung.
“I want to follow in their footsteps and become the face of this club,” Son said. “Next year, I want to have a season that befits this MVP trophy. I’ll try to make it back to the award ceremony.”
With 60 points, Jeonbuk finished three points ahead of Ulsan for the title. It was the second straight season in which Jeonbuk took the title with Ulsan settling for a runner-up finish, even though, on paper, Ulsan had a more talented roster after Jeonbuk lost some key pieces over the winter.
Jeonbuk are chasing a “treble,” or winning three major trophies in one season. With the K League 1 title taken care of, Jeonbuk will battle Ulsan in the second leg of the FA Cup final on Sunday. They played to a 1-1 draw in the opening leg on Wednesday. Then later this month, Jeonbuk will resume group stage action at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League, the continent’s top international club tournament.
Among other winners, Pohang Steelers’ Kim Gi-dong was named the Coach of the Year. Pohang finished third with 50 points and led all clubs with 56 goals. Kim scored 38.09 points to beat out Jeonbuk’s bench boss Jose Morais (31.07 points).
Kim is the first winner not to come from a champion or a runner-up.
“This trophy will have my name engraved on it, but I think it is really for the whole team,” Kim said. “I will try to keep improving as a coach.”
Kim said it was “a miracle” that he won the coaching award for a third-place club but added, “This year, I think we developed a unique identity. We scored a lot of goals and played an exciting brand of football.”
Kim said he didn’t think Pohang had enough talent to contend for a title next year, but he wants his players to double down on their offense-driven approach.
Kim, 49, said he tried to let his guard down around the players and keep his line of communication open.
“I told the guys that I am not just their head coach, but that I am just an older guy who played before them. I told them to come to me whenever they wanted to talk,” he said. “I think talking strategies with younger players helped them grow.”
Pohang’s emerging forward Song Min-kyu was named the Young Player of the Year, given to the best player under the age of 23 with less than three years of experience. Candidates must also have appeared in at least 50 percent of the team’s matches.
Song played in all 27 matches this season and scored 10 goals to rank second among all South Korean players. Song also chipped in six assists as part of the league’s most lethal attack.
“I would like to thank coach Kim and the rest of the team for helping me win this award,” Song said. “This is the beginning for me. I will try to stay humble and keep putting in the work.”
Song said he only started thinking about winning the Young Player prize in the second half of the season.
“I put the team goal above everything else,” Song said. “And once we got close to accomplishing that, I began thinking about my own award. I must admit I watched other candidates pretty closely in the late part of the season.”
He said coach Kim was a positive influence the whole season.
“He has helped us maximize our strengths and work on addressing our weaknesses,” Song said. “He’s built a system where young players can continue to get better.”