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Where EAST meets the Northwest


25TH SEASON. Samoan Bill Tuiloma (top photo), a defensive stalwart for the Portland Timbers, worked his way into a full-time role with the Timbers in 2018. During the 2019 season, he logged a career-best 25 appearances. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

South Korean midfielder In-beom Hwang was named the Most Promising Male Player for the Vancouver Whitecaps after a solid first season with the club. Major League Soccer kicked off its 25th season over the weekend. (AR Photo/Jody Lim)

Veteran goalkeeper Luis Robles, a graduate of the University of Portland, signed as a free agent with Inter Miami CF on December 2, 2019. Robles, who was recently announced as Miami’s team captain, currently ranks sixth in Major League Soccer history for goalkeeper wins and owns the league’s Ironman streak with 183 consecutive complete games. (Photo/Jacklyne Ramos, courtesy of Inter Miami CF)

Midfielder Ryan Raposo (bottom photo), who has Chinese heritage, was selected fourth overall in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft by the Vancouver Whitecaps after two years at Syracuse University. (Photo/Shelden Rogers, courtesy of the Vancouver Whitecaps)

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #04 (March 2, 2020), pages 7 & 8.

Asian MLS players have a Pacific Northwest flavor

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

As teams in Major League Soccer (MLS) continue to invest in players from Asia, a clear pattern is emerging, and it’s centered right where we live. With a few exceptions, Asian and Asian-American MLS players are mainly found in the Pacific Northwest this season, with several on one squad: the Vancouver Whitecaps.

While the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have had their share of Asian players, the Whitecaps are heavily invested in the east. At least two Asian stars should make the first team this year, and two more could join them soon.

Left back Ali Adnan, the first Iraq-born MLS player, was loaned to Vancouver last season. He joined the club a few months later as a Designated Player, a roster slot reserved for top-flight soccer talent.

Adnan certainly fits that description, having played 68 matches in three seasons with Udinese of Italy’s Serie A, among the world’s best leagues. Prior to Serie A, he played two years with the Baghdad FC youth team and two seasons in Turkey’s top league. Adnan has 50 caps with the Iraqi national team, was a member of the 2019 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup Best XI, and was named the 2013 AFC Asian Young Footballer of the Year.

After joining Vancouver in 2019, Adnan showed his value to the Whitecaps by tying for the team lead with five assists in 28 starts and leading the squad in a wide range of defensive and passing metrics. He was named to the MLS Team of the Week four times, and his lone goal of the season featured him brilliantly splitting two defenders and curling a long-distance shot past a diving keeper.

Adnan has a talented teammate in South Korean midfielder In-beom Hwang. Hwang was named the club’s Most Promising Male Player after a solid first season with the Whitecaps. He’s still young — just 23 — so the Whitecaps could lose him to a European club if he develops as much as they expect. But for the next several seasons, Whitecaps fans can look forward to plenty of action from Adnan and In-beom.

Rumors are swirling that Hwang could gain a teammate from his home country, as Vancouver is in talks with attacking midfielder Lee Dong-gyeong. Just 22 years old, Lee has played for Ulsan Hyundai in South Korea’s top league, notching four goals and two assists in his first season.

Lee made his debut for the South Korean national team last year after scoring eight goals in nine appearances with the under-20 team. If the Whitecaps can sign him, it’s easy to see these three players forming the most formidable Asian trio in MLS history.

Vancouver’s fourth player with eastern roots is Ryan Raposo, whose mother is of Chinese descent. Raposo was chosen fourth overall by Vancouver in the MLS SuperDraft, after two excellent years as an attacking midfielder at Syracuse University.

As a freshman, Raposo was among the team leaders in points and assists and was named to the ACC All-Freshman team. The following season, he started all 20 games, scored a team-leading 15 goals, and was second on the team in assists with seven.

This led to Raposo’s selection to the All-ACC First Team and his decision to jump to MLS, where he hopes to secure a spot on Vancouver’s first team. Even if he only makes the second team, we will see him on an MLS pitch sooner rather than later.

Another Pacific Northwest team, our own Portland Timbers, has an Asian-American player also hoping to make the roster of the first team. Japanese-American center midfielder Ken Krolicki played for parts of the last two seasons with the Montreal Impact, starting 23 games in 34 appearances but failing to register a goal or an assist.

Some of his offensive struggles can be explained by his dislocated right elbow, which knocked Krolicki out for the first few months of last season, and then he struggled to regain his form. Montreal did not renew his contract, so Portland signed him to T2 in January.

Krolicki already made his mark during the preseason. As a second-half substitute with the first team against Minnesota United, Krolicki pounced on a loose ball just outside the penalty area and drilled it into the net, showing both his quick feet and his shot-making power. Portland’s first team is crowded, but we can expect to see Krolicki with them at some point this season when they inevitably need some midfield help.

When he does, Krolicki should join Bill Tuiloma, the defensive stalwart with Samoan heritage who worked his way into a full-time role with the Timbers in 2018. Last season, he logged a career-best 25 appearances (21 of them starts), a reliable constant in a fluctuating Timbers back line. The club recognized his importance by signing him to a multiple-year deal in December. Unfortunately, Tuiloma will start this season late, as a calf strain will likely sideline him until April.

Some Asian talent looms outside of the Pacific Northwest with two excellent players. In December, I discussed the rebound of Japanese forward/midfielder Tsubasa Endoh from Toronto’s second club to the first team. Toronto reached the MLS Cup Final last season, only to fall to the Seattle Sounders, but they will welcome Endoh’s continued development to help them return to the final for a chance at redemption.

Inter Miami CF will play its inaugural season this year, and they chose Lee Nguyen from Los Angeles FC with their third overall pick in the expansion draft. Nguyen, a Vietnamese American, has emerged as a potent attacking force for New England and Los Angeles.

In 2014, his breakthrough season for the Revolution, Nguyen scored 18 goals and gave five assists. That total was the most ever goals by a midfielder, most by a U.S.-born player, and it helped to earn him third in MVP voting.

Since then, he hasn’t matched that prolific production, but has still scored 27 more goals and assisted on 44 more, including a career-best 15 assists in 2017. Although the 33-year-old’s best years may be behind him — last year marked his first season without a goal in his career — Nguyen will still bring leadership, playoff experience, and steady production to Miami.

Also joining Nguyen in Miami is veteran goalkeeper Luis Robles, a graduate of the University of Portland, who signed as a free agent on December 2, 2019. In eight seasons with the New York Red Bulls, from 2012 to 2019, Robles earned 72 shutouts, had a 1.29 goals-against average, helped his squad win three Supporters’ Shields, and held a record of 114 wins, 71 losses, and 53 draws.

Robles ranks sixth in MLS history for goalkeeper wins and owns the league’s Ironman streak with 183 consecutive complete games. In 2018, he also set the single-season Red Bulls franchise record for clean sheets (14) and wins (21). His experience will be invaluable for his new club, as witnessed by the recent announcement that he will serve as Miami’s team caption this season.

Too often, we forget how blessed we are to live in the Pacific Northwest, where we have so many chances to see excellent Asian and Asian-American talent on the soccer pitch. And the concentration of players in Vancouver will give Asian-American sports fans another reason to make the trip north — or to Providence Park — to see the Whitecaps play.

Editor’s note: MLS kicked off its 25th season over the weekend. The Portland Timbers lost their home opener to Minnesota United FC, 1-3, the Vancouver Whitecaps lost to Sporting Kansas City, 1-3, and Inter Miami CF were edged out by Los Angeles FC, 0-1. The Timbers and Whitecaps compete in Portland on April 25 at 7:00pm and in Vancouver on October 4 at 1:30pm. For learn more, or to view the full 2020 schedules, visit <www.timbers.com/schedule> and <www.whitecapsfc.com/schedule>.

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