Korean soccer finds ‘next Lee Kang-in, Kim Min-jae’… 2026 World Cup hopes revealed

The South Korean national team’s run at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023 came to a halt in the semifinals. Although the team fell short of a “second straight final” with a 1-2 loss to Italy in the quarterfinals at La Plata Stadium in Argentina on Sept. 9, Kim Eun-Joong-ho’s team has put a number of newcomers on the map, signaling the future of Korean soccer.

One of the most prominent players at the tournament was Lee Seung-won (Gangwon FC). With two goals and four assists, the South Korean captain matched Lee Kang-in (Mallorca), who won the Golden Ball at the U-20 World Cup four years ago. If Lee adds an offensive point in the third-place game against Israel on Wednesday, he will surpass Lee.

Lee turned pro in a Gangwon jersey last December, but has yet to make his K League 1 debut. He has been a virtual unknown. Even after earning his first Taeguk-mark last year, he let his teammates take the spotlight and did the dirty work.

But he stepped up to the plate from the first group game against France. He had a goal and an assist in the 2-1 win. He scored an offensive point in every game of the tournament, with the exception of the third group game against Gambia, which went scoreless. “I think we have something (that will lead the future of Korean football),” said Kangwon coach Choi Yong-soo, “and we plan to use him as a specialist kicker (in future matches).”

The discovery of Kim Ji-soo (Seongnam FC) and Choi Seok-hyun (Dankook University), who have been as effective as the Napoli and Kim Young-kwon (Ulsan Hyundai) combinations in the A team, is also a big win. Kim started all six games and anchored the back line with six clearances, 0.8 interceptions and an 85% pass completion rate per game, according to soccer stats site Sofa Score.

Choi Seok-hyun’s wide defensive range and one-beat quickness made him a perfect fit for Kim Ji-su. In the round of 16 against Ecuador and the quarterfinals against Nigeria, he scored headers to establish himself as a ‘goal-scoring defender’. He is reminiscent of Kim Young-kwon, who scored headers against Germany at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and Portugal at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Bae Jun-ho (Daejeon Hana Citizen) also lived up to his nickname of ‘Kim Eun-jung-ho’s ace’. A thigh injury slowed him down in the group stage, but he bounced back perfectly in the Round of 16 against Ecuador (1 goal, 1 assist). Ahead of the semifinals, FIFA described Bae as “creative, unpredictable and tricky to watch”. Italian coach Carman Nunziata also applauded Bae, saying, “He was very impressive.”

The performance of the “Little Taegeuk Warriors” has raised expectations for the 2026 North and Central American World Cup. “The age groups are the foundation of the A team,” said A team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann when announcing the call-ups on Friday. It’s exciting to see these players develop and become part of the national team over the coming months and years,” he said, hinting at the possibility of U-20 players being called up in the future 메이저사이트.

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