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Long Read: Spotlight on Kim Moon-hwan, Busan IPark's nurtured star, bound for LAFC

Kim Moon-hwan, 김문환
Opportunity knocks for Korean National Team right back Kim Moon-hwan, who has signed for Los Angeles FC after establishing himself as one of the brightest young talents in Korean football. KLU's Todd Wilde looks back at four years of stand out performances for Busan IPark in K League 1 and K League 2, highlighting his contribution to IPark, hallmarks of his play, and some areas Kim must work on if he is to be a success in the MLS.

Kim Moon-hwan, the adopted local hero

Kim Moon-hwan is a 25 year old right back that has been an ever-present in Busan IPark's squad since making his professional debut in 2017. A member of the gold medal winning Asian Games squad in August 2018 alongside Son Heung-min, Kim earned an exemption from military duty for his efforts in the tournament, where Kim started every game. His performances as an attacking wing-back in the competition caught the eye of National Team coach Paulo Bento, who has since capped Kim eleven times for the senior team. 

Named to the K League 2 Team of the Year in 2018 and 2019's promotion winning side, Kim was easily Busan's player of the season in 2020, as he led the team in a number of statistical categories including passes, interceptions and acquisitions.

Unlike many other Busan academy products, Kim did not attend school in Busan and was signed to IPark directly from U-League side Chung-ang University, where his form had earned a call-up to the Korean U19 side. The Hwaseong native attended Suseong Middle School and Suwon High School, both a stone's throw from the Suwon Sports Complex that Suwon FC and KBO side KT Wiz now call their home. 

When he arrived in Busan, Kim initially lived in dorms at the Busan IPark Clubhouse in Gangseo-gu, sharing digs with another youngster that broke into the first team at the same time, Lee Myeong-jun. Kim's popularity after his Asian Games gold directly led to a surge in attendance at the Gudeok Stadium, with Moon-hwan particularly popular amongst female supporters in Korea's second city. Over a thousand fans turned up at Busan KTX Station for the chance to be served by Kim and Lee in a publicity stunt for convenience store chain Storyway in September 2018.

Kim has also proved to be a popular player amongst IPark's main supporters group, Pride of Pusan. Kim was one of few Busan players to have been given the honour of his own fan banner, one which will remain on display at Korean National Team games long after Kim has left the club. 

Kim Moon-hwan, 김문환"Moon-naning". With thanks to P.O.P for their permission to use this photo. 

[READ: From the Stands: Pride of Pusan (P.O.P)]

"A modern, intelligent full back"

Signed as a winger in January 2017, Kim was known in the U-League for his dribbling ability and speed in the final third, and played his first professional season in a side that late coach Cho Jin-ho led to the FA Cup final and the verge of promotion before his sudden death in October 2017. Kim's breakthrough came in a substitute appearance in the 4th round against Pohang Steelers, where he put in a game changing performance against a talented side flying high in the top division. Moon-hwan's assist for Choi Seung-in earned Busan a shock 1-0 win in extra time, and Kim was barely out of the team from this point, starting regularly at RW in a 4-3-3 formation.

Kim Moon-hwan, 김문환21 year old Kim celebrates his first professional goal against FC Anyang in April 2017.

Kim scored four goals in his debut season as IPark lost out on promotion from K League 2 in heartbreaking circumstances, losing to Sangju Sangmu on penalties in the Promotion/Relegation play-off. Kim's talent was clear to see from the very beginning, as he given the responsibility to act as a disruptive threat very early in his professional career. In this 30 second compilation clip, the raw 21 year old can be seen drawing defenders with tight dribbling, before finding an open teammate in space who could help continue the attack.

With the emergence of Kim Jin-kyu and Lee Dong-jun as skillful attacking options in the 2018 season, Kim dropped back into a wing-back role, where he often joined attacks as a second winger that could drift into the midfield as Busan dominated possession against less capable sides. Throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Kim gained experience both as a right back in a 4-3-3 and as a wing-back in a 5-3-2 formation, as Busan evolved into a swashbuckling attacking unit with little regard for keeping a watertight backline. Kim also has experience playing at left back in both systems, however the player is not nearly as comfortable in this position, largely due to a propensity to cut inside to use his favoured right foot.

A video recently went viral of Kim's 35 yard screamer against Incheon early in the 2020 season, and whilst Kim is capable of striking the ball from distance, the truth is moments like these have been few and far between in the past two seasons. 

A beacon of reliability in a team that has been as fragile on the pitch as their owners' reputation off it, Kim found himself dropping back to protect an extremely unsettled and injury ravaged backline - shielding vulnerable central defensive partnerships by limiting crosses from the right side of the pitch. Kim accumulated 122 blocks in the 2020 K League 1 season, by far the most by a Busan player and the 13th most of all players in the league, despite Kim rarely dropping deep into his own box.

Kim Moon-hwan, 김문환
 Kim Moon-hwan races Daegu FC's Kim Dae-won to a loose ball in July 2020.

Kim's style is one of a modern, intelligent full back that waits for the opportune moment to break up attacks rather than diving into tackles. Kim reads the game well and has developed a reputation of being extremeley adept at predicting and snuffing out attacks before the ball can reach the 18 yard box. Smart positioning and a studious reading of opposition attacks allowed Kim to intercept passes 47 times last season (the highest of any Busan player), whilst his 202 acquisitions of loose balls was the 14th highest of any player in the league.

Experience playing as a winger earlier in his career has helped develop Kim into a dangerous counter attacking threat. Kim is perhaps at his most entertaining when using his blistering pace on counter attacks, where his pace and awareness makes him a legitimate attacking outlet. 

In the following example, note his starting position, out wide and close to the half way line. As Lee Jeong-hyeop releases Lee Dong-jun on the counter attack, Kim makes the overlapping run that allows for a cross from the edge of the 18 yard box. With Lee Dong-jun - usually his favoured option on the drag back - unavailable, Kim elects to target a floated cross towards Lee Jeong-hyeop, which was blocked by the defender. Though Kim arguably chose the wrong pass (with an option available to drill the ball towards the far post), he registered an assist as Lee Gyu-seong took advantage of woeful defending to volley home, a goal that would have not been possible without Kim's run or awareness.

Moon-hwan, the metronome

Last season, Kim evolved into a far more influential player within the team than during his K League 2 days. Whilst Romulo was often relied upon as the chief playmaker in the side in 2019, opposition defences had wised up to his attacking threat in a higher division, requiring Busan to consider a Plan B for effectively building attacks in the 2020 season. Kim arguably became the most important player in the team's building of attacks, as he matured into a player that helped progress attacks into the final third of the pitch, acting as a deep lying metronome that can help retain possession and spark the team into attacking phases. 

Kim was increasingly relied upon as a passing outlet on the right side of the pitch, prioritising ball retention over risk taking or defence splitting passes. Moon-hwan led the team with 1,208 passes (15th in the league), of which 793 were classified as short passes under 15 metres (6th in the league). Interestingly, 447 of these passes were classified as back passes, the most made by any player in K League 1 in 2020. 

On paper, it seems negative that a right back would lead the league in back passes, but this fails to account for the context of Kim's passing - 84% of his passes were actually made in the midfield or opposition third, as Kim recycled play to central areas, or looked to cut the ball back into the box in advanced areas - often aiming for Lee Dong-jun as a main target who could then penentrate the 18 yard box. Perhaps unexpectedly for a skillful full back, 36% of Kim's passes were 'lateral' passes, as Kim was relied upon as dependable option for short passes and recycling of play. 

In possession, usually one of Busan's central midfield three would drift into the wide right spaces (most often Romulo) as a short option for Kim when playing out of Busan's own defensive third, however the defence (including the left back) typically shifts to allow Kim to play as a psudeo right sided midfielder, allowing the full back to push up the pitch in support and utilise his passing ability where it's needed most.

Kim Moon-hwan, 김문환
Kim surveys his passing options against Suwon Samsung Bluewings, May 2020.

Kim should not be relied upon to play a Hollywood pass, or indeed any long defence splitting balls that can a punch through a backline. However, Kim does have an excellent eye for playing diagonal balls on the deck into the box or attacking midfield positions, and was recorded as having 13 key passes that led to concrete chances in the 2020 season, roughly one every two games.

Indeed, Kim has been seen by some Busan fans almost as a second mezzala within the team when Busan is in possession, since he is often targeted with long balls further up the pitch (and has an excellent first touch and heading ability in wide areas). In the final third, Kim typically tries to feed other players into the attack, particularly from midfield, often registering a 'second assist' for his contribution to the link-up play. In this example against Seongnam, Kim is available as an outlet on the wing to quickly redistribute the ball to Romulo, who attempts to find Kim with a through ball. A defensive header sets up Lee Dong-jun, who volleys home with aplomb.

[READ: Tom Marcantonio's spotlight on Seongnam FC's new signing Lee Gyu-seong (from June 2020)]

Where will Kim need to improve?

Defensively, Kim can struggle when targeted by skillful players with an abundance of guile. Kim has good pace, is clever at improvising when put onto the back foot, but can be easily beaten in one vs one duals. At K League 1 level, Kim could often get away with this since teams would often target the opposite flank (to avoid Kim) or look to unbind Busan through the air, directly attacking IPark's centre backs. Yet, Kim has found himself as the target of attacks when put up against world class talent. Porto attacker Luis Díaz gives Kim the runaround in this example, as he fails to make a tackle before being beaten by Díaz's cut back within the 18 yard box.

One area where Kim has made incredible strides in is his aerial presence. Once considered a weakness of his game, Kim has improved especially when used as a outlet wide in midfield areas of the pitch - often being the target of long balls into the right flank. However, Kim can be caught out when asked to defend crosses within his own box, even against players not renowned for their aerial ability. In this example the 173cm Kim loses out to 179cm winger Song Min-kyu when asked to defend deep in his own box (also note: this clip also shows a good example of Kim's link-up play in the final third, as he successfully cuts the ball back towards Lee Dong-jun in the final third of the pitch).

Kim could also be accused of petulance, the player often getting wound up and engaging in shouting matches with opposition players. Kim has accumulated 23 yellow cards in 111 K League appearances (including playoffs), though he has only one red card to his name, which suggests that Kim is devious enough to play up to the opposition but intelligent enough to know when to curb his aggressive side.

Kim is sent off against Ansan Greeners in July 2019 - his only career red card.

On the attacking side, one area where Kim has been criticised throughout his career is his end product. Whilst Kim could be wasteful when shooting earlier in his career, it is his crossing that has come to be known as his weak link. Journalist Steve Han recently posited that LAFC were brave to sign a full-back with a poor crossing ability, and there is little doubt that Kim lacks the accuracy or potency to reliably drill balls into the six yard box from wide areas.

Even though this is a valid point, particularly pertinent to Kim's relevance as an international standard player for the Korean national team, his crossing has not proved to be much of an issue at K League level. Kim only attempted 13 crosses in the 2020 season, one of which was classed as an assist. Playing behind fellow Korean international Lee Dong-jun on the right wing, Kim was tasked with feeding the ball to Lee's feet, whilst strikers Lee Jeong-hyeop and Gustavo Vintecinco - both far from prolific in the air last season - were most commonly utilised in the air as a long ball outlet by former coach Cho Duk-jae.

It is easy to criticise the 25 year old, but it is worth remembering that Kim is not a natural right back, having only played the position for less than three seasons. Coaching at Busan IPark has helped nurture and give Kim Moon-hwan valuable top flight experience, but a change of scenery and new coaching methods are arguably overdue for the talented defender.

The minds of Bob Bradley and his coaching team will no doubt help the full back to concentrate on fixing his flaws and acquiring new skills, whilst training against top tier attackers such as Carlos Vela and Brian Rodríguez will help Kim prepare for the rigours of MLS attacking units, a step up from what Kim has faced in the Korean first division.

 Kim will be remembered by IPark supporters for moments of passion, like this celebration with Romulo in a Promotion/Relegation Playoff vs. FC Seoul in December 2018. 

What next for Kim Moon-hwan and LAFC?

Alicia Rodriguez, writer for the Angels on Parade website, notes that Kim's attributes are likely to translate well to the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League finalists. LAFC have played exclusively in a 4-3-3 formation since their launch in 2018 - the same formation that Busan IPark played in K League 1 - utilising attacking fullbacks as a core part of a philosophy that requires fluidity between defence and attack in all areas of the pitch. 

Fortunately for Kim, it appears that former United States National Team coach Bob Bradley prefers his team to play a style of football that matches Kim's strengths in short, sharp passing. "LAFC don't use crosses as an attacking principle. Instead, they generally keep the ball on the ground and work one-twos and through balls. Fullbacks generally participate in short passing in the build-up of attacks, even when they overlap with wingers."  

One significant difference for Kim will be the calibre of left back playing on the opposite flank. While IPark's stand-in left back Park Jung-gang offered virtually no attacking threat, allowing Kim to be involved in the lion's share of Busan's attacking build-up, LAFC have a proven attacking threat in Ecuadorian international Diego Palacios

Ecuadorian LB Diego Palacios will share attacking contributions with Kim at LAFC. Photo: Reuters.

Rodriguez notes that the Black and Gold occasionally push both fullbacks up into attack, but usually require one fullback to stay back as a 'safety valve', protecting the team from the threat of counter attacks. "If Palacios remains at the club, I think there's a pretty decent chance that Kim would be asked to 'stay at home' more often, picking his spots to push up in attack".

Christopher Saenz of the Shoulder 2 Shoulder podcast added that right back has been an important need to address in the off-season, and that Kim should expect to start for Los Angeles. "Our current RB is American international Tristan Blackmon, who we think would prefer to play in the CB position. Our defense has been an area that fans have wanted to see improvements in. This signing would help us on and off the pitch."

Saenz noted that Los Angeles has a large Korean community, with LAFC supporter group TSG made up primarily of Korean Americans. The main supporters section, the 3252, even has a Korean chant, rare within mainstream American sports. LAFC are sowing the seeds for Kim's arrival, and are likely to have considered the commercial potential of Kim's arrival as part of the deal. The club this week announced an official Korean merchandise collection in collaboration with artist Choi Hokeun, who also helped design Busan IPark's retro jersey for Seoul based sportswear brand Over the Pitch earlier this season.

Unlike former Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Hwang Inbeom, Kim will not be classed as a Designated Player, with LAFC already filling the quota of three players that are allowed to exceed the team's salary cap. However, it is understood that Kim's salary will be competitive with Hwang's, and that he will still earn substantially more in the MLS than in Korea, a life changing salary in comparison to the basic pay that homegrown K League stars are restricted to on early contracts. 

Kim has the advantage of learning from his Korean international teammate's experiences in Vancouver. Hwang, now plying his trade for Rubin Kazan in the Russian Premier League, noted that the hardest thing to adjust to in the MLS were the long flights necessary to play away games within the United States and Canada, admitting to KLU columnist Paul Neat that he'd "rather travel to Korea [from Vancouver] than travel to Orlando". Hwang also stressed that the adjustment to playing on artificial pitches was very difficult, whilst learning English was a challenging lifestyle change off the pitch.

[READ: Paul Neat's interview with then-Vancouver midfielder Hwang In-beom from January 2020]


How can Busan IPark replace their star defender?

For Busan IPark, the 2021 offseason represents one of wholesale change, but it doesn't need to be one of universal depression for long suffering Royals fans. The same youth academy that has successfully developed Kim and Lee Dong-jun into promising starlets for the Korean National Team has a number of options ready to break out in the less pressured surroundings of the Korean second division.

Lee Sang-jun is the natural successor to Kim, and is almost a shoo-in to start at RB in the second division, a league that has become an effective proving ground for many fullbacks that now feature in the K League 1. Whilst the Korean youth international often struggled when pitted against top division wingers last season, Lee also showed signs that he can replicate Moon's prowess galivanting down the flank, and appears to possess a skillful confidence when running at defenders, taking players on with fearless abandon. 

Lee Sang-jun, IPark's bright young hope at right back.

It is rumoured that Lee will be joined at the club by Choi Jun, a teammate from the 2019 Korean U20 squad that lost to Ukraine in the Under 20 World Cup Final in 2019. The 21 year old Ulsan Hyundai youth academy graduate played at left back in that historic side, however is a natural right back, playing in this position on loan at K League 2 rivals Gyeongnam in 2020. Both fullbacks are capable of playing on both flanks and will count as U22 players for the 2021 season. Veteran fullback Park Jung-gang is also capable of playing on both flanks but is likely to be utilised as a back up option, given new coach Ricardo Peres' expected focus on youth in 2021.

[READ: Busan IPark 2020 Season Review]

With many thanks to Alicia Rodriguez, Christopher Saenz, Lee Dowon and Tomas Marcantonio for their insight and knowledge when researching this article.

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