VANCOUVER, BC – When Vancouver Whitecaps FC host Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday night at BC Place, it could mark the first occasion that two Korean-born players – Vancouver’s Inbeom Hwang and Seattle’s Kim Kee-hee – go head-to-head in a Major League Soccer match.
Which seems a little surprising considering the league has been around since 1996.
For one reason or another, MLS has never emerged as a viable option for players from Korea to this point. In fact, aside from Hwang and Kee-hee, only two other Korean-born players have appeared in the league.
“There have been too many options for Korean players when it comes to moving abroad,” said Steve Han, a Korean football writer for Goal.com. “China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE obviously offer the most lucrative pay, while Japan provides quality lifestyle and decent pay in its own right. Then, there are Korean players who manage to outgrow Asian football, and they prefer a move to Europe where they'd have the opportunity to test themselves against the world's best.”
For talented, young Koreans starting their careers, there have traditionally been three primary routes after spending time in a youth academy, according to Han.
Some players make an early jump into the K League, which was the case for Hwang, who debuted professionally with Daejeon Citizen FC at the age of 18. Others, like Young Pyo-Lee, play at the collegiate level before turning pro – Han said that attending college is still a very important aspect of Korean society. And then there are those that move abroad right away, sometimes within Asia and sometimes directly to Europe like Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min, who got his start in Germany.
“So the idea of playing professionally in North America hasn't really been an accessible option for most players,” Han said.
The first Korean-born player to join MLS was Hong Myung-bo, playing two seasons for LA Galaxy in 2003-04. Lee was the second, ending his illustrious 14-year career as a member of Whitecaps FC in 2012-13. Notably, Myung-bo and Lee are South Korea’s first and fourth most capped players of all time. Their respective moves to North America certainly generated a lot of interest, but it didn’t result in an influx of Korean players following their footsteps.
Part of the reason for that, according to Han, was because they had both already retired from the national team and were nearing the end of their careers.
“This is also why I say that Inbeom's move to MLS is totally different from the likes of Hong Myung-bo, YP and Kim Kee-hee, because he's actually the first Korean player to play here at such a young age,” said Han. “He has openly said numerous times that he sees his move to MLS as an opportunity to grow as a player.”
Hwang has been one of Vancouver’s most influential players to start the season, playing every minute of every game thus far. The 22-year-old, who recorded an assist in the season opener against Minnesota United FC, leads the team with eight chances created and nine shot attempts.
Like many young players, Hwang dreams of one day playing in Europe. But he knows that he still has plenty of room to grow in order to achieve his goals and maximize his full potential, which is why he felt the move to MLS was the right one at this point in his career.
“When I spoke to him during preseason, he said that the one thing that shocked him the most was the fact that the Whitecaps had more staff members to support the team than the number of players on the roster,” Han said.
“In Korea, he played for a small second division club in his hometown that was run by the city government. It's the first time he is playing for a club with a full-on medical staff, performance analysts and coaching staff. He told me that he truly feels that the Whitecaps will help him with everything he needs on and off the pitch to develop into a better player.”
Han, who writes a weekly column on MLS that is distributed directly to Korea’s largest online news portal Naver Sports, said Hwang’s move to North America has already been a “huge factor” in changing the way Koreans view the league. His latest column, which highlighted the 80+ MLS players called up their national teams during the recent international window, particularly turned some heads.
“People were genuinely surprised as they had no idea that MLS has become such a global and competitive league,” Han said.
Whether or not this opens up a pathway of sorts for Koreans in MLS remains to be seen. Based on the experiences of Whitecaps FC head coach Marc Dos Santos, who played a key role in the recruitment of Hwang this offseason, it’s something that would certainly be welcomed.
“What I’ve noticed from players from South Korea or Japan, those are two countries I was able to deal with in my career, if only everybody had that mentality in sports,” Dos Santos told reporters on Thursday. “They’re so committed, they don’t cheat, they work hard every time, they have an incredible energy. And when you see their national teams play, it’s all about that. I hope one day I could have a group where everybody has that kind of mindset.”