The Vancouver Whitecaps won the bidding war for Young-Pyo Lee without really trying.
The former World Cup star from South Korea said Wednesday he chose lifestyle over money when he decided to sign with the Major League Soccer club.
“The most important decision is my life and the future,” said Lee when discussing his move to the MLS during an introductory news conference at B.C. Place Stadium.
Reports indicate the 34-year-old rejected richer offers to sign with the Whitecaps, who are looking to improve on a last-place finish in its inaugural campaign in North America’s top league.
Lee joins Vancouver after two seasons with a club in Saudi Arabia.
“The club that he was on in Saudi wanted him to stay there,” Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said. “I can tell you that it was at a very significant amount of money. He’s made a life decision at this point to move here.”
Lee has represented his homeland in three World Cups (2002, 2006 and 2010) and his 127 international caps also include appearances in three Asian Cup tournaments.
Lee also starred with famed Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, England’s Tottenham Hotspur, Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and FC Seoul, which he guided to K-League and Korean Super Cup championships. In the past two seasons, he helped Al-Hilal capture two consecutive Saudi Professional League and Saudi Crown Prince titles and also made two appearances for the Riyadh-based squad in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League.
Lee said he fell in love with Vancouver’s ocean and mountains and wanted to experience a new city and culture while helping his two daughters learn English. Vancouver’s large Asian population was not a determining factor in his decision but the community appealed to him.
“He had plenty of options and we’re fortunate that we live in Vancouver, and Vancouver is one of the most livable cities in the world,” Lenarduzzi said. “We’re probably benefiting a lot from things that don’t necessarily relate to football. But he’s aware of the club. He’s aware that we’re in MLS. Those things combined have resulted in what we think is going to be the perfect marriage.”
Wednesday’s news conference attracted a large contingent of reporters from Asian media outlets, including China’s national Xin Hua news agency. Lenarduzzi said the strong Asian interest is an added bonus, but was not a determining factor in the team’s decision to sign Lee.
Although Lee has stopped competing internationally for South Korea, Vancouver’s management group is convinced that he can still play at a high level.
“He’s offered the playing side, the leadership side, the mentoring side and there’s no doubt in my mind that he has considerable time in him in terms of what he can offer on the field,” Lenarduzzi said.
Vancouver coach Martin Rennie added that Lee is an important addition to a defence that ranked among the worst in the league last season.
Lee’s decision to sign with the Whitecaps for less money than elsewhere also proved that he wants to play on the West Coast for the “right reasons,” Rennie added.
“It also sends a message to the other players that he’s a guy who’s done everything in the game and he’s here because he wants to learn – because he wants to succeed,” Rennie said. “He’s not here for a pay day. He’s here for other reasons. That has to inspire players to do the best they can as well.”
The Whitecaps are looking to Lee to fill a hole at the right fullback spot. Wes Knight, Jeb Brovsky and Jonathan Leathers shared most of the playing time there last season, but all are gone from the Whitecaps. With Alain Rochat well established at left fullback, Lee will switch from his usual left side to shore up the right side.
Rennie said he still wants the club to get better everywhere on the pitch but it is unlikely to make moves at forward after Brazilian striker Camilo and French counterpart Eric Hassli ranked among the league’s scoring leaders. MLS veteran Atiba Harris is also slated to return now that he has recovered from a knee injury that kept him out most of the season.
“We’re not looking to lose players,” Rennie said. “We’re looking to add more good players.”
Notes: Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber, a former Tottenham executive, knew Lee from his days with the Spurs.