This is a feature in Issue 19 of Sounders Monthly, Sounders FC’s original magazine. They are available for free at The NINETY, Soccer Celebration, GuestLink Services locations and Membership Central as well as the Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and South gates.
Take a look at Seattle Sounders defender Kim Kee-hee, and it’s not hard to see why the man plays center back.
The 29-year-old South Korea international is tailor-made to play the position at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. He’s a physical defender, not afraid to clean out opposing attackers when necessary, but also nimble, athletic and an underrated passer, frequently finding his midfielders with pinpoint feeds to kick-start attacks.
Playing alongside three-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, Kim is part of one half of one of the most imposing central defender duos in the league. He’s played consistently from nearly the moment he arrived in Seattle from Shanghai Shenhua of the Chinese Super League prior to the 2018 season.
Whether Kim would adapt to MLS quickly was an open question upon his arrival, given the cultural adjustments and language barriers with which every player arriving in a new league and new country has to deal. Kim became only the third Korean to ever play in MLS, and the first since 2013.
Kim poses with iconic Seattle landmarks at the historic Pike Place Market downtown | All photos by Jane Gershovich
Once Kim started playing, though, Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer and General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey couldn’t have imagined a more seamless transition.
“I didn’t speak English well at that time [when I first arrived in Seattle], but I speak soccer,” Kim said through a translator. “Soccer is one language. [My teammates] speak soccer, I speak soccer, so it’s easy to understand each other. That’s the common language.”
Kim and Marshall jelled from the start, with Marshall learning a few words of what he would later describe as highly basic Korean, just enough to help the two better communicate on the field. Their games complement one another, too. With Marshall’s abilities as one of the league’s preeminent defensive stoppers, Kim has freedom to roam when the situation calls, perhaps more than an average center back.
“He’s ultra-aggressive, likes to go, so then I can be the guy in behind when he wants to check off and run in the midfield with the forwards, so I think we have a good understanding,” Marshall said of his back line partner. “It took us a little bit to understand each other and play on the same line, but I think we have that understanding now despite the language barrier.”
Kim sent Sounders fans into bedlam at CenturyLink Field in an October 2018 match against the Houston Dynamo. After winning the ball in the attacking half, he split two defenders with a twirling pirouette before dashing toward goal.
A few weeks prior in a match at Providence Park against the Portland Timbers, Kim charged down the right flank and into the penalty box before sending in a cross that deflected off Portland defender Julio Cascante and into the net for an own goal and a 1-0 Sounders win.
“Kim Kee-hee scored that,” Schmetzer said wryly after the match.
Still, Kim had only been to the United States one time before his move to MLS, when his South Korea national team played against the U.S. in a 2014 match in Los Angeles. Communicating with teammates, many of whom speak different languages, is one thing. Adapting to entirely new surroundings in an unfamiliar community comes with its own set of challenges, but Kim is tackling those, too. While his English is still a work in progress, he’s become acquainted with his neighbors and his family is enjoying the new experience.
“I’ve gotten to know a little bit more of how to live in Seattle,” he said. “Everybody’s nice to me. [Seattle has] clean air, [it’s a] clean city. I love it. My family loves it here, my two kids, they love it here.
“I’ve been living overseas many years, but here in the United States it’s a lot easier because people are very nice and friendly to me,” he continued. “The language part is hard to learn, but other than that, it’s easy to settle here.”
Kim started watching soccer at age 10, when he watched the South Korean team he would one day play for take on Mexico in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. South Korea lost, but that match was a pivotal one in Kim’s desire to play soccer.
He has 23 caps for South Korea, including a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. With a substitute appearance in the final five minutes of a 2-0 win over Japan, Kim, and every teammate who played in the Olympic Games, was given an athlete’s exemption from the 21 months of compulsory military service required of able-bodied South Korean males.
It was after those Olympics that Kim truly refined his game.
“I spent those two years developing myself as a soccer player so I can play better, so I can pay back the fans and my country, too,” he said.
After professional spells in South Korea and Qatar, Kim joined Shanghai Shenhua in 2016. He was teammates with legendary Sounders forward Obafemi Martins, who Kim said put in a good word for the team and the city.
Kim made his first start with the Sounders against LAFC on April 29 of last year and has started nearly every match since.
“When I came out [at CenturyLink Field] for the first time, I could feel the passion from my fellow players,” Kim said. “The older MLS players, I can feel they have a lot of pride in their profession. I also have that passion and pride. I’m glad I’m playing in MLS right now.”
With the Sounders’ attack off to a blistering start to their 2019 campaign, Kim and Marshall aren’t likely to garner the lion’s share of headlines. That’s just the life of a defender, but it’s also the way Kim likes it. He hopes that the fans will appreciate his willingness to do the dirty work that sets the stage for Seattle’s high-powered attackers to make their mark.
“I want fans to know that I’m not a [flashy] player, like some other players,” Kim said. “But I’m a really good supporter for the team that supports me. I want to be known as a passionate player for the Sounders and I’ll do my best to not disappoint the fans.”