It has been reported (correctly if you’re reading this) by many Korean language sources that, after a long transfer saga, the Vancouver Whitecaps have signed Daejon Citizen midfielder Hwang In-beom (22). Now the first question on your mind is, no doubt, ‘how the hell do I pronounce that?’ Phonetically the name would be spelled “Hwong In-bum.” The next question you’ll be asking is, ‘is he any good?’ That’s a question that will take a bit longer to answer.
Hwang made his debut in 2015 for then Korean first division team Daejon Citizen. He scored 2 goals and added 1 assist in 6 games as an 18 year old, but Daejon were relegated. He remained with Daejon for the next two seasons, breaking into the first team full-time in 2017 with 4 goals and 4 assists in 32 appearances. After the 2017 season Benfica wanted to sign him but Hwang chose to stay in Korea to complete the mandatory 2 years military service all South Koreans must complete between the ages of 18 and 28. Many players choose to delay doing this service to pursue a career abroad but Hwang opted to get it out of the way. He played for the police team, also in the second division, Asan Mugunghwa during his military service. He scored 1 goal and added 3 assists in 18 appearances. But he would not stay there for long. Hwang was part of the 2018 Asian games gold medal winning Korean team (along with Tottenham’s Son Heung Min) and thus earned exemption from military service. He returned to Daejon for the rest of 2018 where he scored 2 goals and added 1 assist in 7 appearances. It wasn’t long before the offers were coming in for the now liberated midfielder. Werder Bremen apparently made a serious play but, if you’re reading this, the Whitecaps out maneuvered them.
Internationally Hwang has played for Korea at u17, u20, and u23 level, as well as 12 times for the senior national team. His caps have all been recent after South Korea manager Paul Bento was impressed by his play at the Asian games.
Style of Play
Hwang is a central midfielder who plays either as a box to box midfielder or as a #10. He has also been deployed occasionally as a defensive midfielder. His most obvious strength is his incredible dribbling ability. His ability to play a pass is also very good but still requires a bit of polish. Against tougher opposition his more ambitious long range balls don’t always come off. While not a defensive rock like an Aly Ghazal, he is very feisty and doesn’t back out of a tackle. He doesn’t register a huge amount of goals and assists because his game is built around shuttling the ball to more advanced players. If you watch Korea’s highlights from the Asian Cup you will see that he is often the one starting the moves that lead to chances but rarely the one to take the shot or make the key pass (he wore the #6 for Korea at the Asian Games). Instead he distributes the ball to the winger who crosses it in or to the #10 who plays a through ball. This was partly down to the role Korea were using him in, as he was filling in for deep lying playmaker and Newcastle United player Ki Sung-Yueng, but he also does similar things in club football.
It should be obvious from those highlights that Hwang is way too good for the Korean second division. In that league he looks like a P.E teacher who’s joined in with his students and isn’t holding back (I was immediately reminded of the scene in the film “Kes”). This naturally leads one to the question:
Is the Korean Second Division Good?
Well, no, of course it’s not. But it’s not as bad as you’d imagine. There are only 12 teams in the Korean first division and the difference between the bottom of the first division and the top of the second isn’t that huge. A 2017 analysis of K League payrolls shows that Jeonbuk Motors towers over everyone else. Their payroll of over 15 million would make them the second highest spenders in MLS. There is then a significant drop off with the rest of the first division teams spending about as much as bottom half MLS teams. But there are also second division teams, like Busan, Suwon and Seongnam who are not that far off the spending of first division clubs. So the Korean second division is not as good as MLS but i’d say it’s probably better than USL. If you want to get an idea of how he’d look against MLS level opposition then here are all of his touches from a game against Australia. Australia has a lot of players who play in their domestic league or in good Asian leagues with a few player playing in top European leagues (kind of like DPs) so I think this should give you a pretty good idea.
As you can see, he’s not as ludicrously dominant as he is in the Korean second division, but still stands out. His more ambitious long balls get intercepted quite a bit but he still does a good job of controlling the centre of the park. It’s worth keeping in mind that in this game he was deployed in a much deeper role than usual so he didn’t have the freedom to dribble forward like he normally does.
Back to MLS Projections:
There has been a player to join the Whitecaps from Korean football before. The infamous Camilo. Camilo scored 0 goals in 6 appearances in the Korean first division before being let go by Gyeongnam. Camilo still has the best scoring season of any Whitecap in the MLS era. Hwang, on the other hand, scored 2 goals in 6 appearances in the first division as a teenager on a team that got relegated. If Hwang improves in MLS as much as Camilo did then we’re in for a wild ride.
In terms of actual production, I wouldn’t expect a ton of goals and assists. But I would expect to see Hwang involved in a lot of moves that lead to goals.