The domestic league is well represented on South Korea's provisional World Cup roster announced Monday.
Head coach Shin Tae-yong unveiled his 28-man team, from which five will be cut for the final roster by the FIFA-mandated deadline of June 4. Of the 28, 14 are based in the K League -- 13 in the top-flight K League 1 and one in the second-division K League 2.
South Korea will play Germany, Sweden and Mexico in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup, which kicks off in Russia on June 14.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, the defending K League 1 champions and winners of three of the past four titles, are the best-represented of all domestic clubs with four players.
At the previous World Cup, the 23-man roster included only a half dozen players from the K League, with 17 others from leagues in Europe, China and Japan.
|South Korean forward Lee Keun-ho (front) (Yonhap)|
South Korea have often relied heavily on overseas-based stars, especially on the offensive end. The talent pool is shallower on defense, and Shin picked eight of his 12 defenders from the K League.
Of those eight, Jeonbuk's Lee Yong is a carryover from the 2014 World Cup. Lee was fielded sparingly four years ago but has since developed into a solid offensive weapon from the right fullback spot.
Lee's Jeonbuk teammate, Kim Jin-su, would have been a shoo-in as the starting left fullback, had it not been for a knee injury sustained in a March friendly match. He also missed the 2014 World Cup with an injury after making the final roster.
Ulsan Hyundai's Park Joo-ho, who was the replacement for Kim in 2014, is back on the 2018 team. Park was playing for Mainz 05 in Germany at the time of his previous World Cup selection but he didn't get off the bench in Brazil. He could be a valuable contributor this time, thanks to his versatility to play as center back or defensive midfielder.
Jeju United's Oh Ban-suk is the only first-time selection on defense. He is the tallest defender on the preliminary roster at 189 centimeters, and Shin said he liked Oh's physical play.
Injuries to center back mainstay, Kim Min-jae, also forced Shin to look deeper into the K League pool.
"To be honest, I wouldn't have selected Oh Ban-suk if Kim Min-jae hadn't been hurt," Shi said. "He's a big, strong defender who can be physical in man-to-man coverage. We left him off previous teams because his offensive buildup was lacking. But at the World Cup, our focus will be mostly on containing the opposition attack, not on creating offense from our backline."
Though Oh didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from Shin, the player still said he was pleased with his selection and was ready to get to work.
"I will prove my worth through competition with my new teammates," Oh said in a statement put out by Jeju United. "I think the most important thing for me is to play the kind of football coach Shin wants us to play and really become one with his tactics."
|South Korean defender Lee Yong (Yonhap)|
There are three K League midfielders on Shin's team, including Ju Se-jong of Asan Mugunghwa FC, the only player from the K League 2. But an even bigger surprise was Incheon United's Moon Seon-min, who has been named to the national team for the first time.
Shin said he liked Moon's speed and aggressive streak. That Moon spent five seasons in lower-tier Swedish leagues before arriving in the K League also helped Shin to pick the 25-year-old.
"I felt he was the player best suited to face Sweden (in the group stage)," Shin said. "He's a speedy player who can penetrate the opposing defense at will. He can play the kind of aggressive football that we like."
In a statement released by Incheon United, Moon said he found it hard to believe he was on the national team.
"My dream had always been to play for the country, but I felt I might get an opportunity at some point down the road," said Moon, who said he got a deluge of phone calls congratulating him. "I thought only the proven players would get the call for the World Cup because it's such a big stage."
Moon still has his work cut out for him to make the final 23-player roster.
"I'll try to play with a lot of fight and determination, which is my strength," he said. "Sweden have some dangerous offensive players, but their defenders are slow-footed. I think we can penetrate their defense with our speed."
Up front, Jeonbuk striker Kim Shin-wook and Gangwon FC forward Lee Keun-ho are joined by two Europe-based players, Tottenham's Son Heung-min and Salzburg's Hwang Hee-chan.
At 196 centimeters, Kim is the tallest South Korean player, but he is as adept at his ground game as at aerial attacks.
Lee scored South Korea's lone goal at the 2014 World Cup in a 1-1 draw against Russia and will be back for a second go-round. At 33, he has carved out a niche in national team play as an effective sidekick to Son. Lee is best known for his work ethic and his ability to create space for Son with his speed and nose for the goal. (Yonhap)