The Sounders’ Kim Kee-hee (20) tackles the Whitecaps’ Fredy Montero during the first half of an MLS match on March 30, 2019, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Ben Nelms / The Canadian Press via AP)

The Sounders’ Kim Kee-hee (20) tackles the Whitecaps’ Fredy Montero during the first half of an MLS match on March 30, 2019, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Ben Nelms / The Canadian Press via AP)

Kim’s key defensive play a talking point for Sounders

The South Korean-native saved a potential goal in stoppage time in Saturday’s draw with the Whitecaps.

  • By Jayda Evans The Seattle Times
  • Wednesday, April 3, 2019 5:24pm
  • SportsSounders

By Jayda Evans / The Seattle Times

TUKWILA — Kim Kee-hee doesn’t consider himself flashy.

But the Seattle Sounders center back’s grit sure is dazzling. Kim’s powerful slide to deflect a potential goal in stoppage time this past Saturday against Vancouver is a key reason Seattle (3-0-1) remains in the midst of its best start since its 2009 inaugural MLS season.

At the time, Kim’s hustle drew celebratory screams from goalkeeper Stefan Frei. But days later, praise kept rolling in, despite a language barrier. Kim is a South Korea native in his second season with the Sounders, often needing a translator to communicate in English.

“(Kim) put his body on the line,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “(We) speak as much as we can. I love to pick his brain, and we use Google Translate to do so. He was happy and he was thrilled that he made a play.”

The moment also included quite a coincidence: The shot was taken by Vancouver rookie Hwang Inbeom, a fellow South Korea native. Saturday’s game was the first in MLS history to pit two Korean players against each other. Hwang is the fourth Korean to play in the league. He took too long to set up his kick, giving Kim time to sprint the length of the goalkeeper’s box to prevent the score.

Hwang spun to the ground, initially drawing a yellow card on Kim. The card was rescinded after video review.

“He had some good talks with his Korean friend,” Roldan said of Kim, who did not speak with the media Wednesday. “They obviously respect each other and respect their game.”

Defense was the biggest takeaway from the Sounders’ scoreless draw with Vancouver. Seattle entered the match with a league-leading 10 goals, and the Whitecaps had allowed seven scores in their winless start to the season. However, Vancouver jammed the box with up to nine players to successfully prevent any Sounders goals. Seattle anticipates seeing similar tactics from other opponents to combat the Sounders’ desire to attack within the opening 20 minutes of a match.

“We have to find other ways to score goals other than finding the soft areas alongside the box where we normally get our assists from,” Roldan said. “It could come from deeper crosses and playing more direct. Letting (opponents) have the ball so they have to open up. There’s a lot of different things we can do that we obviously didn’t do against Vancouver. I felt we were crossing just for the sake of crossing because we had time. But they had a lot of guys in the box and made life difficult for us.”

Striker Raul Ruidiaz was particularly frustrated by the bunker defense. He had five shots, going goalless for the first time this season.

“There were a couple of looks we had — Raul’s left-footed shot goes right to the goalkeeper — some half-chances where guys’ touch is a little heavy when normally they were clean,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said after reviewing film. “We got the ball into the prime assist zones a lot. So, there were a lot of half-chances. We’ll improve on being a little sharper.”

Regardless of the offensive struggles, Kim has settled into working with right fullback Chad Marshall, a three-time MLS defender of the year, to form a defensive shield with Frei to give Seattle chances to pick up wins.

“It takes everybody,” said Frei, whose save set up Hwang’s rebound attempt. “You can reinforce that and keep talking about it, but when you have a clear example that you can show the squad like (Kim’s block), then that has more weight and it’s great to see that. … I can’t commend our defense enough for playing until the whistle blows.”

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