As bright as they come

Young-Pyo Lee continuing his legacy with Whitecaps FC

Young-Pyo Lee Chivas USA

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There’s more than meets the eye for the ’Caps player known affectionately as “Bright Eyes.” South Korean right back Young-Pyo Lee was given the nickname by the coaching staff of his national team when he first got called-up at the early age of 22. They noticed something special about the Hongcheon-gun native, a glint in his eye that matched his brilliance on the pitch.

Now 34, “Bright Eyes” is a veteran on Whitecaps FC’s roster. Having played in three FIFA World Cups and with some of Europe’s top-flight clubs, he is also one of the most accomplished Whitecaps FC players to date. That’s precisely why the club was so pleased he agreed to play in Vancouver, placing high hopes on Lee’s ability to help the ‘Caps foster a ‘culture of success’.

“You need people like that who can help young players learn what it means to be a professional player and understand it from someone who’s really been at the top,” explained Whitecaps FC head coach Martin Rennie. “So far I think he’s probably the highest level player the ’Caps have ever had in MLS. It’s an honour for us to have a player like that become part of our squad.”

Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s only a one-year difference between Young-Pyo Lee and coach Rennie that helps them see eye-to-eye so well. “He’s only one year older than me,” Lee joked. “But I still respect him all the time. I’ve learned many things already; I’m very happy playing for him.”

EYE ON THE BALL

Young-Pyo Lee has been a key contributor to a golden era of soccer for Korea, having been a defender with Guus Hiddink’s famous squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, which they co-hosted with neighbours Japan. While Lee scored five goals in his international career, it was an assist that is likely his most memorable moment in the public eye. During the ‘Round of 16’ against Italy in that 2002 World Cup, Lee sent in the cross in extra time that set up teammate Jung-Hwan Ahn’s golden goal, giving Korea a famous 2-1 win that took the country to new heights on soccer’s biggest stage.

In total he would suit of for his national squad 127 times, including appearing in two more World Cups (2004, 2011), the 2001 Confederations Cup, and three Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup tournaments. After retiring from his international career following the 2011 Asian Cup, Young-Pyo Lee sits third on his country’s all-time international appearance list.

His very name evokes pride in most all South Koreans and his bright international career has brought tears of joy to more than a few eyes.

EUROPE BOUND

Korea’s success at the 2002 World Cup proved to be Lee’s passport to Europe, joining former coach Hiddink and compatriot Ji-Sung Park at PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch Eredivisie on a six-month loan from South Korean club Anyang LG Cheetahs. While his communication skills were tested by being in a foreign country, his raw talent on the ball required no translation, and in the blink-of-an-eye that six-month loan turned into four seasons with the Peasants.

But the Netherlands wouldn’t be the only stamp on his passport. Next up was a high-profile move in 2005 to Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. Lee would remain with the club for three seasons, winning the 2008 English League Cup and making numerous runs in the FA Cup and UEFA Cup.

His final European destination was yet another powerhouse, joining Burussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga in 2008. He would spend a lone season with the club before opting to head to the Middle East, joining former PSV Eindhoven teammate Eric Gerets at Saudi Arabian giants Al-Hilal where he remained for two seasons.

AN EYE TOWARDS THE FUTURE

Despite an offer by Al-Hilal to renew his contract, and despite receiving numerous other offers from some rather well-known clubs in Europe and Korea, the distinguished fullback chose Vancouver Whitecaps FC as the next chapter in his storied career.

“The players here in Vancouver are very impressive,” he exclaimed. “Even the front office, the coaching staff and the fans. I'm so happy I came here.”

Widely regarded as one of the best attacking fullbacks in the game, Lee trail-blazed a path through Europe for Asian players. Now he has found his way West to Major League Soccer (MLS) and he predicts it’s likely only a matter of time until we see more players from Asia joining the league.

"I've already talked with many Korean national team players," confessed Lee. "So some guys are already interested in the ’Caps."

Should they have the same pedigree as Young-Pyo Lee, the ‘Caps, for one, will be happy to have them. And while other teams in MLS would be smart to keep an eye out for “Bright Eyes” this season, it seems highly probable that the rest of us here in Vancouver won’t be able to keep our eyes off him.