LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – The last few months have not been easy for Inbeom Hwang, who had been trying to navigate the biggest decision of his footballing life while playing for South Korea at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, but now he says he’s focused on one thing and one thing only.
And that’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
Hwang trained with his new teammates for the first time on Monday after meeting the team Friday night in Los Angeles. Admittedly, he felt a little anxious at first. After all, this is an entirely new experience for the 22-year-old, who has spent his entire career to date in South Korea.
But his nerves quickly turned to excitement.
“I don’t speak English very well, but I said hello and nice to meet you to the players,” Hwang said through a translator. “Everyone made me feel welcome. It felt very nice. Now, I just feel very excited and happy for joining the team.”
The first face to greet us in LA. pic.twitter.com/P4TzaID8Nw— Vancouver Whitecaps (@WhitecapsFC) February 16, 2019
Hwang said his meeting with Whitecaps FC head coach Marc Dos Santos also put his mind at ease.
“In the meeting, the head coach said to just focus on enjoying your football,” Hwang said. “No pressure, nothing special. Just enjoy. That made me feel better. Right after that, I thought that good things are going to happen from now on.”
The ‘Caps certainly hope so.
This is a player they recruited heavily, starting in November shortly after Dos Santos took the job. That’s when Hwang first learned of Vancouver’s interest. He knew it was a “very good city” to live in, with a significant Korean community, but he didn’t know much about the club.
A call with South Korean soccer legend Young-Pyo Lee, who ended his 14-year career in Vancouver, helped change that.
“He gave me a lot of good advice,” said Hwang, who has 12 caps with the South Korean national team. “It really helped me to make the decision.”
So too did the efforts of Whitecaps FC vice president of soccer operations Greg Anderson.
First, Anderson flew out to Korea to make a presentation to Hwang’s parents. Then, he went to Dubai to meet with Hwang during the Asian Cup. Hwang said they were only able to speak for approximately 15 minutes due to South Korea’s busy schedule, but Anderson clearly left a positive impression.
“My father and mother were impressed by his presentation,” Hwang said. “I thought Greg was going back to Vancouver, but he came to Dubai to meet me … during that meeting, I felt really great expectations from the club. I saw the passion from the club and Greg. I was so impressed.”
There was also interest in Hwang from a few teams in Europe, but the ‘Caps clearly went above and beyond to make him feel valued.
“Vancouver showed a lot of interest and expectations in me,” Hwang said. “After I signed the contract, I’ve only been thinking about the future, how I’m going to give back to Vancouver.”
By all accounts, he has a lot to give.
Dos Santos has described Hwang as a player with an “incredible gift” technically and someone who can play any of the three midfield positions in a 4-3-3 formation. He also said he believes Hwang has the skillset to become a “special player” in MLS.
But it won’t happen overnight.
With this being Hwang’s first experience outside of South Korea, both parties understand that there will be a transition period involved. Hwang, who is currently trying to learn English through YouTube and will start working with a tutor once he arrives in Vancouver, said the language barrier is the biggest challenge at the moment. He also knows he needs to get stronger physically.
These are obstacles he’s ready to overcome, however, as he begins the next chapter of his career and looks to take on a larger role with the South Korean national team – a responsibility he takes very seriously. Hwang said his goal now is to simply grow as a person and footballer, help the ‘Caps achieve their objectives, and make the fans proud.
“I have been playing in Daejeon for four or five years,” Hwang said of his hometown club. “I made my debut there. All the fans gave me big support and big love, more than I expected. After I signed in Vancouver, I was dreaming of the same situation.”