The year that was for Young-Pyo Lee

South Korean defender has been a star both on and off the field

Vancouver Whitecaps FC fans woke up to some wonderful news on Thursday morning when they learned that right fullback Young-Pyo Lee would return to play the 2013 season with the club.

"I could tell how much the club cared about me," said Lee. "This moved my heart...[it's] fun to play soccer with such great people at Whitecaps FC."

There had been talk of whether or not the 35-year-old 2012 Whitecaps FC BMO Player of the Year would step away from the game after an illustrious career that has included successful spells in Europe and a memorable 2002 World Cup with South Korea.

But Lee put an end to the speculation at a press conference in Seoul to announce he would be extending his stay in Vancouver.

Lee’s debut season in MLS didn’t disappoint, and he defied his age by racking up the most number of games played (33), games started (33) and minutes played (2,970) on the roster during the 2012 MLS regular season. He also scored one goal and registered four assists.

The tireless Lee - not dissimilar to the 'Energizer Bunny' - also played the full 90 minutes in the team’s Western Conference Knockout Round match away to LA Galaxy.

It's time to take a quick look back on the season that was for the South Korean legend:

A man as popular as they come in Major League Soccer (MLS), Lee made an indelible impression right from the start. Media packed the room at BC Place for his introductory press conference, while hundreds of Korean fans were keen to meet him in his first public appearance at H Mart.

He came into preseason camp ready to go, modestly stating that he "hoped" his fitness would be strong enough.

If he hadn’t done so already, Lee etched his name into the forefront of the supporters’ minds thanks to his surprising match-winning goal away to Columbus Crew on April 28, and while head coach Martin Rennie may have described the goal as “fortuitous”, goalkeeper Joe Cannon thought otherwise.

“If you’re asking if Y.P. meant it, I think anything that guy does is magical,” Cannon said after the match. “I think he means it. He’s that good. He’s an absolute beast. The ‘young prince’ is doing wonders for us on the right side and it’s great to see.”

Thankfully for the ‘Caps, Lee’s efforts down the right side rarely let up the rest of the season.

Fast-forward to September 15 at FC Dallas Stadium in Texas - where Lee was given the ‘Bon Jovi’ treatment from a staggering 800 Korean fans that came out to support him.

The large contingent cheered for Lee before, during and after the match with many waiting around after the match to get up close with their hero.

Lee’s popularity continued to soar – if that was even possible – during an appearance at the BMO Coquitlam branch.

About 300 fans turned out to get a photograph with the star defender, who also signed everything from jerseys to iPad cases.

When you think about it, September could arguably have been considered ‘YP Lee Fan Appreciation Month’.

Sales figures for adidas MLS jerseys from March to September were released and Lee was one of two Whitecaps FC players to crack the top 20 best-selling jersey list when he came in at number 14.

Towards the end of a memorable season, Lee acknowledged he even surpassed his own expectations in regards to playing time in 2012.

But the number of minutes didn’t come as a shock to club captain Jay DeMerit, who was glowing in his praise of his veteran teammate in the back four.

“Y.P. is a guy, no matter what his age, who has always been there and been consistent,” DeMerit said in October.

“His wealth of experience and his skill as well – he’s the total package.”

Two of many attributes that fans and teammates will continue to see from him in 2013.