(LEAD) Ulsan Hyundai FC clinch 2nd straight K League 1 football title

SEOUL, Ulsan Hyundai FC are the champions of South Korean football for the second season in a row.

Ulsan secured their second straight K League 1 title Sunday with three matches left this season, thanks to their 2-0 win over Daegu FC at home, Munsu Football Stadium in the southeastern city of Ulsan.

Coached by Hong Myung-bo, Ulsan improved to 70 points and opened up a 10-point lead over second-place Pohang Steelers with three matches remaining. Pohang can't catch Ulsan even if they win their remaining matches and Ulsan lose out to finish the season.

Pohang had to beat Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Saturday to keep alive their hopes of catching Ulsan but settled for a 1-1 draw instead. That set the stage for Ulsan to clinch the title with a win over Daegu, and Ulsan took care of business as substitutes Kim Min-hyeok and Jang Si-young each scored a goal in the second half.

This is Ulsan's fourth title overall. Their 2022 championship was the first since 2005.

With four titles, Ulsan pulled into a tie with Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Busan IPark for the fifth-most championships in league history. Jeonbuk have won the most titles with nine.

In his first season in charge in 2021, Hong coached Ulsan to second place, two points behind Jeonbuk. Ulsan ended their drought in 2022 and held off Jeonbuk by three points, 76-73, for the crown.

Hong is now the sixth head coach to win consecutive titles in the K League 1 and the first to do so since Jose Morais took Jeonbuk to the top in 2019 and 2020 seasons.

Ulsan began the 2023 season with a six-match winning streak and opened up a 13-point lead over Pohang by early July, with Jeonbuk well out of a title chase.

Ulsan's hiccups in recent weeks let Pohang close the gap, but Hong's team had built enough of a lead earlier in the season that allowed them to lock down the title with time to spare.

Ulsan staggered into Sunday's match, having recorded just one win in their past seven matches, with four draws and two losses. Ulsan had scored just six goals in those seven and none in their last three.

The drought ended in the second half Sunday, as Kim scored on 68 minutes -- about four minutes after coming off the bench.

Ataru Esaka sent a cross from the left wing, and the ball sailed over the head of goalkeeper Oh Seung-hoon, who fanned on an attempt to clear it out of harm's way. Kim beat defender Kim Kang-san to the ball and headed it home to make it 1-0 Ulsan.

Ulsan kept the pressure up after Kim's goal and finally padded their lead near the 90-minute mark.

Jang Si-young sprinted into the area to receive a long ball from midfield, and after a superb first touch, the 21-year-old defender netted his first career goal to lock down the title for Ulsan.

"We knew it would be difficult to score early, because our opponents came ready to play physically," Hong said afterward. "We were looking to make a hard push for goals in the second half, and our substitutes did a great job."

Kim, who joined Ulsan this year after spending time with five different clubs over the past seven years, said he was happy to have contributed to Ulsan's first back-to-back title run.

"I wanted to go in and play aggressively from the get-go," Kim said of his mindset as a substitute. "Ataru made a great cross, and I was ready to pounce on it."

Source: Yonhap News Agency