Kim Moon-Hwan: ‘You have to continue to raise the bar.’

In January, Kim Moon-Hwan made waves in Major League Soccer by being the first South Korean player to sign for Los Angeles Football Club. With all he’s overcome, he’s undeniably one to watch.
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Kim Moon-Hwan: ‘You have to continue to raise the bar.’

The first thing you notice when talking to Kim Moon-Hwan is how humble and unassuming he appears. As I ask him questions over Zoom, the 25 year-old almost seems surprised that anyone might be quite so interested in the life of a football player from Hwaseong, South Korea. But Moon – as he is affectionately called by those in Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) – answers every single question I ask him as though he is all too aware and proud of the responsibility he carries by being LAFC’s first South Korean player in the club’s short but illustrious six year history.

“As a kid I always grew up with dreams of playing abroad,“ he conveys to me, with the help of translator Ben Chi. “But it wasn’t something I envisioned or thought was possible when I was playing professionally just because I knew that once I became a professional there would be lots of different elements that are not as easy as it sounds when you’re dreaming about it when you’re a kid. I’m fortunate to be in this position, playing abroad like I dreamed of.”

The move that took a kid from Korea all the way to Major League Soccer (MLS), the premier men’s soccer league in the USA, is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was put into place during the pandemic. Moon speaks of all that has changed since he came in January, the tiny changes that paint a vivid picture of a transformed life. He’s gone from grabbing a coffee with friends after training or a meal with the team after a good game, to spending much of his time with his wife in their new LA home. Luckily for Moon, he’s newly married and such time is to be cherished.

The neverending back-and-forth between training and home that many athletes have undertaken since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been much of the same for Moon as well. As the MLS has slowly restarted for the new season, it’s allowed him to be able to use the time to adjust to a different and technically focused, attacking style of playing and getting to know a new multi-national dressing room. One of the small (if ultimately irrelevant) joys fans see after every transfer window are videos of the initiation ceremonies that all new signings undertake at some point: players have to stand in front of their team-mates and sing… whatever song they can muster. Moon mentions – with perhaps a tiny flicker of relief – that he has been unable to participate yet due to an injury that has meant he has sat out the beginning of the season. But he is no stranger to injury.

“During my college years I had a pretty lengthy injury and spent a lot of time on the sidelines. It made me feel like I was not in control, something that I couldn't speed up or do anything about. It was something that I had to concede to, to the fact that I was injured and hurt. It was tough for me mentally but nonetheless, if I was to think about a time when I really struggled in my soccer career, I think it's when I was injured then.”

Injury is the great blight on the professional athlete: the constant risk that in a second can undo weeks, if not months or years of hard work and planning. The virtue of football being a team sport is knowing that when you’re out for injury, you have other teammates that can keep flying the flag. Yet this is a double-edged sword: watching your teammates out there and managing (or not) without you only makes sitting and waiting while you recover all the harder. For Moon, a knee injury he has nursed since late 2020 meant that when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, he had still not stepped onto the pitch in the black and gold. Luckily, since then he has managed to make his LAFC debut: in no less a landmark game than El Trafico, the LA derby that pits LAFC against LA Galaxy.

When he spoke to me back then about his injury, he considered how the long-term recovery he dealt with during his college days helped him during a time when there were already so many new things he was adjusting to.

“[My previous injury] is something that should help me with my current injury right now and my recovery to fitness. But I think because my past injury was something that was really hard on me and sort of traumatic, right now I'm going through another phase in my life where I have to overcome this challenge. Right now, it doesn't necessarily make it easier or better because I've had that [past] experience. It's just something that is another goal I have to accomplish and conquer.”

The trauma of injury during his college years must have caused such worry, that one’s career might already be on the decline before it’s barely started. Luckily for Moon, his career since then has proved that he’s one of the lucky ones, with consistent seasons on the pitch for Busan IPark Football Club followed by the LAFC move, showing that he wasn’t destined to have his potential snuffed out too soon. When one looks back on a player’s career we often pinpoint unforgettable highlights: trophies, medals, promoting your club against the odds. I ask Moon what moments and memories with football standout to him the most.

“I don't think that there's a single individual moment that was a great memory,” he says with contemplation. “I think that as a player, it's very important for you to set your dreams and work towards them little by little. When you're able to achieve them, the feeling that you get, or the amount of confidence that you gain from being able to achieve those milestones you set for yourself... I think that those are the kind of moments that stick out to me the most. Whether that was the first time I got into the middle school [team], the first time I got into the high school [team] or the college [team] or even going to play as a professional for the first time. Those are the favourite moments that I've had. Not a single individual moment, but a collective all together.”

At some point in our conversation I asked him about which players he was a fan of as a child. When he mentions Park Ji-Sung, I can’t deny that for myself – a Manchester United fan since birth – it put a smile on my face. He’s certainly one of the most famous Asian players of all time, and I wonder how it impacted Moon as a child to have such a role-model from his own country to look up to.

“Park is a player that everyone in South Korea respects,” he tells me. “He is honest, he is extremely hardworking and he is a player that leaves everything out on the field. This is something that I took inspiration from, that has helped me with my game and he has a lot of the attributes that I have tried to take for myself. That’s kind of the reason why he’s been my favourite player and naturally because of that the team that I supported was Manchester United. It’s still a team that I follow to this day.”

Yet what has aided in cementing the status of South Korean players like Park Ji-Sung and Tottenham Hotspurs’ Son Heung-Min is the fact that there are comparatively so few Korean – and for that matter, Asian players of any nationality – that have been able to move to the upper echelons of Western European football and have succeeded at the highest level. As LAFC’s first ever Korean signing, I ask Moon what it feels like to now be amongst the ranks of Korean players that play in top Western leagues and why we’re starting to see more and more Korean players make that jump. Is it because of the great role models in Korean footballing history, or is there more to it than that? Perhaps Korea’s victory in the 2020 Asian Games has only helped develop the confidence of a new generation of Korean players that are hungrier and more ambitious than ever.

“Every player is different,” says Moon, after a moment of reflection. “Some players like to stay close to their homes and play in the countries that they're from. Some players look for a new challenge or a new level of playing for themselves. I think that we're at a point in time where there are a lot more players that are open to the challenge and the new experiences that they can have. Also, there are a lot more opportunities coming in from different teams and different leagues that are paying attention to South Korean footballers and Asian footballers alike.

I want South Korea to be more recognised as a country that is producing football players but more importantly I want people to recognise that Korean footballers are actually skilled players with a lot of talent and a lot to offer to a lot of teams globally. You can see this with many different players that are playing abroad in Europe and other continents. I hope that’s what Korean players can be known for.

I personally haven’t experienced any racism yet, but it is absolutely something that should not happen. As human to human we should show each other respect, we should have a basic foundation level of respect for one another. I had seen a lot of news about racism in America when I was in South Korea through media and social media, but it hits a lot closer to home now that I’m actually here, hearing news and stories about hate crimes towards Black people, to Asian people, to many different ethnicities. It’s something that I hope we can [all] continue to work together against.”

Even so far from home, Moon is well supported by fans in LA already, due to LAFC having the only Korean supporters’ club in the MLS. Moon has already had a chance to meet and talk to some of the club’s members before his transfer.

“It’s amazing to know that someone like me is out there in the stands rooting for me and being supportive,” he says. “With that comes the responsibility to live up to their expectations and to live up to their hopes as a player. It’s something I need to fulfill and I can’t wait to have more opportunities to do so.”

All football players are of course well aware of how their club performances can lead to the one of the biggest dreams for any young player: a national call up. As part of a successful South Korean squad and with the World Cup only a year away, I wonder how much Moon’s mind is already aiming to achieve another call up, especially now that he is playing on his biggest club stage yet. His answer, as all of his answers are, is meticulously conscientious.

“I think my main focus is to get myself back to the 100% I need to be,” he says simply. “Those [other tournaments] are thoughts and dreams and aspirations I can achieve after I reach my initial goal to return to my top form and how I was playing. Everything else can align itself and follow suit.”

Some football players are incredibly aware of their status in the game; whether that’s through the badge they wear on their shirt or the many sponsorships and endorsements they might have. For every Ronaldo or Rapinoe who embraces the public-facing side of being a footballer, there are many others that are happy to just enjoy the game they are playing, perhaps none the wiser about the many kids that have a poster of them on their wall. The buzz around Moon’s transfer certainly helped raise him into a new stratosphere when it came to his public profile. I ask him if he’s aware what his transfer means to a whole new generation of kids aspiring to be footballers that might see themselves in him. He pauses for quite a while as he muses over my question.

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“It hasn’t hit me yet,” he finally says. “In my opinion I’m still a player that’s growing, that’s developing his game. But if there is a kid who I am an inspiration for, then that is a huge honour for me. It’s something I don’t take lightly. I in turn have watched players that I have considered idols like Park (Ji Sung); much more talented players than I am and I have a long way to go to achieve their level.

For me to hear that I might be an inspiration to somebody is a huge honour and a privilege. It’s something that means I always need to do my best and perform out on the field. In that way, people can understand that there are Korean players that are very skilled and talented and that in turn will create more opportunities for other Korean players to go abroad. It is a responsibility that I carry with me very seriously.

I don’t know if I’m the most qualified to give advice to the younger generation, but something I can say is that I don’t think I was a particularly special player growing up. I was on the shorter side in terms of height and even my physical attributes weren’t the standard of what soccer players should be like. But one thing I think I was able to excel at more so than other players was my ability to continue to give effort and try hard, to really have persistence and passion in what I was doing.”

Moon nods as he relays his final thoughts to me, as though reaffirming even to himself that this is how he has managed to both apply himself and succeed in the fiercely competitive sport that he has devoted his life to.

“If I can give a piece of advice to anybody looking to become a professional footballer, it would be to try and raise the limit of effort you are giving and how much passion you have for the game and the sport. There are going to be tough times when you’re going to feel like giving up, but you have to continue to raise the bar of what you’re able to give.

I really want anyone who has a dream of becoming a footballer to continue to try to raise their level, not give up and stay healthy in order to develop into the best player that they can possibly be.”

Kim Moon-Hwan can be found on Instagram and on the pitch for Los Angeles Football Club.