VANCOUVER, BC – Marc Dos Santos knew there was something special about Inbeom Hwang the first time he saw him play. Hwang’s fantastic footwork, ability to wriggle out of any situation on the field, decision-making on the ball, and commitment to playing without it, was exactly what the new Vancouver Whitecaps FC head coach was looking for in a central midfielder.
His interest, most certainly, had been piqued. But it was after an early conversation with South Korean national team head coach Paulo Bento, who also coached Portugal for four years, that Hwang truly emerged as Dos Santos’ primary target.
“He told me that this is probably one of the best midfielders technically that he ever saw,” Dos Santos recounted. “From there, we said okay, ‘Let’s continue watching him. So all the staff continued watching games. Then it just became clear, when Hwang was being called to the national team, this is the player if we’re able to get, we have to do that.”
The day he was hired as head coach of Whitecaps FC, Dos Santos made it known Hwang was a player he coveted. Thus began a two-and-a-half-month recruitment process that included trips to Korea, where Whitecaps FC vice president of soccer operations Greg Anderson met with Hwang’s family and his club to finalize a transfer, the United Arab Emirates, where Hwang was competing at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, and a visit to Vancouver from Hwang’s family.
And on Wednesday, the ‘Caps got their guy.
“It was an effort from everybody in the club, an effort from ownership, from Greg, from the coaching staff, to make this possible,” Dos Santos said. “It was a player other clubs were interested in. Not from MLS, but in Europe. So we thought this would be a great opportunity for us. When it started to become possible, we forced even more. And it’s great to have him represent this club.”
Hwang, 22, has already played more than 100 matches in the Korean first and second divisions, mostly with his boyhood club Daejoen Citizen FC, and has earned three consecutive Best XI selections in K League 2. He also has 12 caps under his belt for the South Korean men’s national team after only making his debut last September.
The 5-foot-10 central midfielder has scored 16 goals for club, and one for country, but with Hwang the goals are a bonus. He’s certainly not being brought in to fill the back of the net. Rather, he’s being brought in to help control the tempo of the game in midfield – to be someone who can keep the ‘Caps in possession when necessary and initiate the attack when he sees an opportunity.
And with Hwang, there are often opportunities he sees that others simply cannot.
“It’s a player with an incredible gift technically,” Dos Santos said. “Very, very gifted. He’s able to come out of pressure areas, to technically get out of spaces where he’s under pressure or where he has to make a quick decision … but what we saw is, although he’s very technically gifted and his decisions were very good on the ball, we also saw an incredible attitude without the ball. A player that works hard defensively and is able to play in the three positions in the midfield.”
Dos Santos did not hesitate in heaping praise on his new Young Designated Player, whose contract with Whitecaps FC runs through 2020 with club options for 2021 and 2022, but he also made a point to temper expectations.
“He’s very mature in his game and mature in the level he’s at, but also a player that’s going to need adaptation to a totally different world and totally different scenario,” Dos Santos said. “He was playing in the South Korean league, and with the Korean national team, so pretty much in a bubble when it comes to language and environment.”
That being said, there’s clearly an upside the ‘Caps are excited about it. And Dos Santos said they will do everything they can to ease the transition and help Hwang reach his full potential.
“I think he’s a player that’s going to be able to grow,” Dos Santos said. “And I believe he could become special in this league.”