The best thing you can say about South Korea coming into this World Cup is that they are fine.
The Taegeuk Ladies aren’t amongst the handful of teams with a real shot to win the tournament, nor would anyone count on them to pull off a few upsets and make a surprise semifinal run. At the same time, the Koreans won’t be one of the worst teams competing in France, the ones whose dreams amount to little more than scoring a cool goal or two and having a good time before flying back home after the group stage.
No, South Korea are simply fine, neither favorites nor flotsam. And for a nation of their history in game, being just fine is plenty.
This is, after all, only the third Women’s World Cup South Korea have ever qualified for, and their first consecutive appearances in the tourney. Twenty years ago South Korea didn’t even have an official national women’s soccer program, and today they are ranked 14th in the world, entering their second consecutive World Cup, with a decent chance of making it out of the group. Just getting to France is itself an achievement that speaks to their rapid improvement.
Four years ago in Canada, South Korea finished second in a tough group and earned the right to be cracked, whisked, buttered, baked into a tasty soufflé, and eaten by France in the round of 16. Getting out of the group was a laudable result for South Korea then and it would be once again should they repeat the feat in France. Clawing for a second- or third-place finish in the group to likely get smoked in the first knockout round doesn’t make for the most glamorous of tournaments, but steadiness now could open the door for glamor later.
Goalkeepers: Kang Ga-ae (Gumi Sportstoto), Kim Min-jeong (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Jung Bo-ram (Hwacheon KSPO)
Defenders: Lee Eun-mi (Suwon UDC), Jeong Yeong-a (Gyeongju KHNP), Hwang Bo-ram (Hwacheon KSPO), Kim Do-yeon (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Lim Seon-joo (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Shin Dam-yeong (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Jang Sel-gi (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Kim Hye-ri (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels)
Midfielders: Lee Min-a (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Cho So-hyun (West Ham), Moon Mi-ra (Suwon UDC), Kang Yu-mi (Hwacheon KSPO), Lee Young-ju (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Lee So-dam (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Kang Chae-rim (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels)
Forwards: Ji So-yun (Chelsea), Jung Seol-bin (Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels), Yeo Min-ji (Suwon UDC), Lee Geum-min (Gyeongju KHNP), Son Hwa-yeon (Changnyeong)
Taegeuk Nangja (Taegeuk Ladies)
South Korea exist in the international scene’s limbo zone. Because they are much better than the bulk of their smaller opponents in the Asian confederation, they typically flatten most of their continental foes. To take some examples from results from 2018, South Korea beat Hong Kong 5-0, beat Indonesia 12-0, beat the Maldives 8-0, and beat the Philippines 5-0. In those matches, South Korea tend to play an open style dominating the ball and getting their attackers into space from which they can wreck defenses.
However, the Koreans aren’t good enough to play that same brand of soccer against World Cup-quality competition. When the World Cup rolls around, South Korea go from being the dominators to the dominated, the technically and athletically superior team to the clumsier and weaker group. Because of that, the matches they play to get to the World Cup hardly prepare them for the matches they play during the tournament.
The rub here is that South Korea in the past haven’t been very good at changing tacks. The Taegeuk Ladies might want to play safer, more defensive, and more solid without the ball against European and North American foes in big tournaments, but their defenders are often too slight physically to do a good job withstanding top teams’ attacking onslaughts. And so even though South Korea ideally would rely more on their defense against the better teams, their best hope for success in France is most likely in trying to score their way into the knockout round.
Thankfully, South Korea have legitimate firepower capable of putting up goals against almost anyone. Their best player, Ji So-yun, is a star. A goalscoring attacking midfielder, Ji one of the best players for a usually very good Chelsea team in England’s Women’s Super League, and is the fulcrum of everything good South Korea do with the ball.
West Ham midfielder Cho So-hyun will be there to help supply Ji with service, and forwards Lee Geum-min and Jung Seol-bin will help with the scoring load. South Korea’s probable starting XI pretty much consists of Ji, Cho, and a bunch of players from Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels, a (fantastically named) club in the Korean domestic league. The Red Angels players’ familiarity with one another should provide Ji and Cho with a solid enough foundation upon which they can work their magic. This is very nearly the exact same group of players that scored four goals in three group stage matches last World Cup, and if they can cobble together that many goals once again, they should be able to qualify for the round of 16.
June 7, 3 p.m.: France vs. South Korea at Parc des Princes
June 12, 9 a.m.: Nigeria vs. South Korea at Stade des Alpes
June 17, 3 p.m.: South Korea vs. Nigeria at Stade Auguste-Delaune
All times Eastern