Where EAST meets the Northwest
Kim Kee-hee of the Seattle Sounders. (AR Photo/Jody Lim)
Tsubasa Endoh of Toronto FC. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
In-beom Hwang of the Vancouver Whitecaps. (AR Photo/Lisa
From The Asian Reporter, V29, #23 (December 2, 2019), page 10.
MLS Cup highlights a year of rising Asian stars
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
In this year’s MLS Cup Final, the Seattle Sounders overpowered Toronto FC,
3-1, a game that pitted two Asian stars against each other. Seattle’s Kim
Kee-hee and Toronto’s Tsubasa Endoh illustrate two very different paths that
Asian stars can take to Major League Soccer (MLS). We also saw the debut of an
MLS player who charted a middle path right between theirs.
Kim Kee-hee joined Seattle in 2018 after an illustrious international career.
He began in Korea’s top professional league, winning back-to-back titles before
Shanghai of the Chinese Super League signed him for a whopping $6 million in
2016. But a change in league rules about foreign players forced Shanghai to drop
Kim in 2018.
Shanghai’s loss was Seattle’s gain, however, and the Sounders quickly inked
Kim. Intended to fill in for an injured Román Torres, Kim became an essential
part of Seattle’s back line. In his first season, he ranked second on the team
in interceptions, fourth in tackles, and fourth in minutes played.
After finishing second in the Western Conference, the 2018 Sounders were
eliminated from the playoffs by the Portland Timbers, who lost in the final.
This season, Kim has proved essential in his club’s drive to reach the
championship match, despite considerable turmoil at the other center back
Thanks to injuries and suspensions, Kim has worked alongside three different
center backs, two of them South American players who also speak English as their
second language. The frequent changes led to a more porous Seattle defense that
surrendered 12 more goals than they had in 2018.
But down the stretch, Kim and the back line tightened, finishing the regular
season with shutouts in three of Seattle’s last four games. In the playoffs, the
Sounders surrendered three goals in the opening match against FC Dallas but let
in just two more in the next three games, including a first-half tally in the
Western Conference final.
Although his presence was essential, Kim remains unsigned at the moment, and
in August he was talking with Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia’s Pro League and could
end up there. Losing him would leave a huge hole in Seattle, but one of Kim’s
championship opponents shows one path to filling it.
Toronto’s Tsubasa Endoh was born in Japan, but he’s become more of an
American product. A top-flight player at Japan’s youth level, Endoh left Japan
after the Fukushima disaster to attend the University of Maryland, where he
notched 12 goals and 16 assists with the always-tough Terrapins.
After Endoh was named Most Valuable Player at the 2016 pre-draft combine,
Toronto FC chose him ninth overall. In his first season, he started in 15 of his
21 matches, but only managed two goals in nine shots on goal.
Disappointed with Endoh, Toronto only gave him three starts in 2017, then
announced after the season that they would not offer him a first-team contract.
Instead, they gave Endoh a contract for their brand-new second-division club,
Toronto FC II.
Undaunted, Endoh played even harder with TFC II, scoring eight goals and
adding two assists in 20 games, earning a contract with the first team before
this season. Even then, he didn’t start for nearly four months, in a game
against the defending champion, Atlanta United. Endoh didn’t waste any time
making an impression, scoring his first goal of the season just 29 seconds into
the match, pouncing on a deflected cross to flick the ball past the keeper.
Endoh delivered two more goals and two assists in nine more starts, earning
Man of the Match honors with the goal that earned Toronto an important draw
against Los Angeles FC, the top MLS team this season. His club finished as a
fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, facing a tough road through the playoffs.
Toronto began that road with an improbable 5-1 victory against DC United in
which they scored four goals in extra time. Unintimidated, they knocked off the
top seed, the New York City FC, as well as defending champ Atlanta en route to
the MLS Cup Final.
Endoh and Toronto were disappointed in their third championship matchup
against Seattle in the past four years. Despite outplaying the Sounders in the
first half, Toronto could not score. Then Seattle came out firing in the second
half, pouring in three goals, while Toronto could only muster a meaningless
tally in the game’s closing moments.
Toronto hopes Endoh continues to develop and leads them back to the finals,
while Asian sports fans wonder how future players might carve a path from the
east to America. One player found a path in between the youthful Endoh and the
veteran Kim: South Korea’s In-beom Hwang, who signed with the Vancouver
Whitecaps before this season.
Just 23 years old, Hwang is neither a proven veteran nor a raw young talent.
He’s played for four seasons with his hometown club, Daejeon Citizen FC, mostly
with their second-division team. After being a part of South Korean national
youth teams for years, he earned his first cap with the senior club last
In his first season with Vancouver, the midfielder struggled to adjust to
American culture, the punishing MLS travel schedule, and the higher level of
play. Still, Hwang scored three goals and gave five assists, earning his team’s
Most Promising Male Player award.
Hwang logged the franchise’s second-most minutes ever for a midfielder and
led the team in recoveries, chances created, and passes completed into the final
third of the field. With continued improvement, Hwang could become one of the
best MLS midfielders around — or he could grow too big for MLS and depart for
the greener pitches of Europe.
While it’s never clear which eastern talent might emerge from the collegiate
ranks or arrive via a gaudy transfer, we can now watch for more in-between
players like In-beom Hwang, talented but not yet polished enough for European
leagues. If MLS becomes a proving ground for them, expect to see more Asian
players on their way to becoming superstars, instead of aging superstars on
their way back to earth.
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