Meet the K League top scorer who spent 2023 in the fourth division

Gangwon FC forward Lee Sang-heon, left, celebrates during a K League match against Daegu FC at Chuncheon Songam Sports Town in Chuncheon, Gangwon on April 3. [GANGWON FC]

Over one month into the 2024 K League 1 season, Gangwon FC forward Lee Sang-heon is the leading scorer with seven goals in six games, outshining strong competitors like 2023 top scorer Joo Min-kyu of Ulsan HD. Twelve months ago he was playing in the fourth division.Lee, 26, has scored in five of the past six games, contributing to Gangwon’s solid run in the league so far.  The team, which struggled throughout last season and barely avoided relegation, sit in fifth-place on the 12-team table with two wins, three draws and one loss as of Thursday. Gangwon are also the second most prolific team in the league with 11 goals — one goal behind Ulsan — thanks largely to Lee’s personal contribution, which is a stark contrast to last season when the team finished the league as the least prolific team with only 30 goals in 38 matches.  But what type of player is Lee and how has he managed to score so many goals?  Comfortable as an attacking midfielder, winger or striker, Lee is able to dribble his way around most defenders, a skill he has put to work for both the U-17 and U-20 national teams.
He has played as a striker in Gangwon manager Yoon Jong-hwan’s 4-4-2 formation this season, under which his finishing skills have been more visible. His second goal against Daegu FC on April 3 displayed exactly that strength — he calmly stroked the ball into the net with a chip shot over goalkeeper Oh Seung-hoon inside the penalty area.   Lee is also able to capitalize on space created by fellow striker Yago Cariello, who tends to pull the defense out of position. The goal Lee scored against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on April 7 was an example of that, with Lee left unmarked inside the penalty box while Cariello pushed up the other side of the area.   Lee’s stats so far this season have been the best of his career. Lee started his pro career with Ulsan, where he made his debut in 2017 and failed to establish himself as a regular pick, prompting him to move to then-K League 1 team Jeonnam Dragons on loan for the 2018 season.  He returned to Ulsan in 2019 and played for the club for another two seasons, struggling to break into the first team or get any time on the field. Lee joined Gangwon this season from K League 2 side Busan IPark. He moved to Busan in 2021 but his career was a mixed bag. In the 2022 season he scored seven goals and picked up three assists in 31 games, but spent the 2023 슬롯게이밍 season playing for the club’s reserve team in the fourth-tier K4.

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