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Where EAST meets the Northwest


INTERNATIONAL TALENT. Before the start of the 2018 Major League Soccer season, the Seattle Sounders recognized that their defensive core was aging, so they looked east for young talent, signing South Korean fullback Kim Kee-hee (right, #20). Initially considered as depth, Kim has instead stepped into the starting lineup for the squad. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

SOUTH KOREA TO SEATTLE. Defender Kim Kee-hee (left, #20) of the Seattle Sounders watches the ball with Columbus Crew midfielder Mohammed Abu during the second half of a Major League Soccer match in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

From The Asian Reporter, V28, #11 (June 4, 2018), pages 7-8.

Sounders rely on Kim Kee-hee sooner than expected

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The Seattle Sounders have been a force in Major League Soccer (MLS) since joining the league in 2009. They have never missed an MLS playoff, and they reached the MLS Cup final in both of the past two seasons, winning the championship in 2016 and falling to Toronto, 2-0, in 2017.

Before the start of the 2018 season, Seattle recognized that their defensive core was aging, so they looked east for young talent, signing South Korean fullback Kim Kee-hee. Initially considered as depth, Kim has instead stepped into the starting lineup, anchoring a defense that has been one of the stingiest in the league in 2018.

Kim arrived in Seattle with an excellent pedigree. Internationally, he has distinguished himself with the South Korean national team. Eight of his 23 appearances with the squad came during the team’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Playing with the under-23 national squad, Kim helped his team win a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, marking the first Olympic medal won by any South Korean soccer team.

Domestically, Kim was drafted by Daegu FC in Korea’s top-flight K League, but the team struggled to be competitive during his time there. After a one-season loan to Qatari team Al-Sailiya SC, Kim signed with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, a far more formidable K League side.

In his three seasons with Jeonbuk, Kim increased his playing time, and the team rose from third place in his first season to win the K League title in 2014 and 2015. In 2016 and 2017, Kim played with Shanghai Shenhua of the Chinese Super League, a league that has brought in higher levels of international talent in recent years, dramatically increasing the level of play. Shenhua obtained Kim with a $6 million transfer fee that was one of the largest in league history.

With Shenhua, Kim scored twice in 45 starts over two seasons, when the club finished fourth and 11th in the league. More important for Seattle, however, Kim connected with former Sounder Obafemi Martins, who left Seattle to join Shanghai Shenhua in 2016. Martins often praised his time in Seattle, and when Kim was looking for a club to play with in 2018, he chose the Sounders.

When the Sounders announced Kim’s signing in February of this year, they said "he brings solid experience from some top-flight leagues and international tournaments and gives us more depth at a vital position."

Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer added, "He is a strong, experienced player that we believe will be a good addition to our defense … His signing gives us very good options at center back going forward, and I’m excited to see how he integrates to the squad."

Seattle already had an excellent defense that includes center fullbacks Chad Marshall, who has won MLS Defender of the Year three times, and Román Torres, who will be playing for Panama in the World Cup, which begins June 14. Kim was expected to rotate with both players this season and perhaps one day take over the demanding center fullback role, being several years younger than both Torres and Marshall.

However, circumstances dictated a different outcome this season. Kim had appeared in just one game before a calf strain knocked him out for a month. When he returned, both Torres and Marshall were injured, and Kim made his first start of the season April 29 against Los Angeles FC, an MLS expansion team this season.

The decision to sit Torres and start Kim happened on game day, increasing the pressure on Kim, but he acquitted himself well. In his 69 minutes as the primary center back, Los Angeles did not score.

After the match, Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said of Kim, "[He] reads the game well, he moves well, he’s got a good soccer IQ."

Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan said, "Kim was awesome. He was confident in his playing ability. … He’s a very aggressive player and I see very positive things about him."

At press time, Kim had started four of five games since his first start, four games in which Seattle yielded just three goals. He has helped Seattle achieve nearly the stingiest defense in the Western Conference, allowing just 12 goals in 10 matches. And he has continued to impress Schmetzer, who says Kim is aggressive, but in the right way. "He’ll get his body positioned right and he steps and tries to win balls. His marking on set pieces is good … He wraps guys up."

Kim’s size is a contributing factor to his aggressive play. He stands 6’2" and weighs 175 pounds. This allows him to dominate in the essential center back role, leaping high to keep the long ball away from opposing forwards, while his strength prevents opponents from gaining position inside the box.

Early season injuries to Kim kept him from being named to South Korea’s national team for this summer’s World Cup. However, this omission has been a boon for Seattle, who will lose three players (including Torres) to the international tournament. Kim will continue to anchor the Sounders back line as he keeps making adjustments to MLS play.

Kim called MLS "tougher" than the Asian leagues he’s accustomed to. "I used to play in Asia and they’re faster and rely more on speed," he said. "MLS feels more like European style. It’s more physical, definitely." So far, he has certainly shown himself to be up to the task, and Asian-American sports fans — especially those of us in the Pacific Northwest — will keep following his development with interest.

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