The former PSV and Tottenham man must overcome some obstacles to impress in MLS, but his ability and his experience makes the Whitecaps' risk worthwhile.
The former South Korean international fullback will join Vancouver next season from Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal on a reported one-year deal that includes an option for a second year.
One look at Lee's glittering résumé suggests new Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie has nabbed a defender of some repute on a free transfer. The versatile 34-year-old defender played in the past three World Cups for his country and regularly turned out for PSV Eindhoven, Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund during a six-year spell in Europe.
Instead of collecting petrodollars for another year in the Middle East, returning home for a swansong in the K-League or stepping away from the game altogether, Lee will follow in former international teammate Hong Myung-Bo's footsteps and finish his career off in MLS.
Both sides must navigate a few hurdles to ensure success for all parties, but Lee's experience and quality make this signing well worth the gamble.
Vancouver's desire to add Lee makes sense given the personalities involved. Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber served on Tottenham's board of directors when Lee played for Spurs and knows the type of player the Whitecaps will receive. Rennie's devout faith, thorough approach and upbeat attitude should provide the bedrock for a solid relationship with his new fullback.
Although the personal fit makes sense for all parties, the professional one requires a bit more plasticity on two fronts: Lee represents a fairly expensive and somewhat imperfect solution to the problem he is expected to solve.
The finances of the deal matter somewhat given Lee's likely station at right back. Money usually isn't the primary guiding factor when a player moves from Saudi Arabia to MLS, but Lee's wage packet will still exceed the minimum and near-minimum salaries dispensed to Jeb Brovsky, Wes Knight and Jonathan Leathers to man that spot last season.
Lee's compensation – an issue mitigated by the revelation that he won't count as a Designated Player in 2012, according to Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi's comments to The Province on Tuesday– isn't a problem in and of itself. It is, however, somewhat of an issue when taken in context with the $150,000 salary paid to standout left back Alain Rochat in 2011, according to MLS Players Union documents. Solid seasons from both players will not erase the notion that the Whitecaps now boast one of the most well-compensated fullback combinations in a league that usually skimps on salaries in that department to focus on other areas.
With two DPs and the near-maximum salaries of Davide Chiumiento and Jay DeMerit already on the books and a potential raise for Camilo perhaps in the plans this winter, the Whitecaps appear to have plunged more than half of their salary budget into Lee and a core of players that sputtered in 2011. The formula does not bode particularly well for a side with a pressing need to increase its depth, improve its production in the wide areas and strengthen in central midfield.
In order to round out the squad, Vancouver could certainly make some changes to its current group. Rennie may opt to jettison high earners like Chiumiento, DeMerit or Mustapha Jarju to preserve some of budget room created by the pay cuts likely taken by Joe Cannon and John Thorrington to secure their Whitecaps futures. If Rennie can import some inexpensive options from Europe and from the second division to improve the squad, then he can likely navigate through this particular thicket without too many problems.
The machinations seem like an awful lot of work to deploy the out-of-practice Lee at his second-best position. Lee rose to prominence for his energetic performances as a left back for South Korea and PSV. Instead of taking advantage of those qualities on the left, Vancouver will rely on Lee's versatility to plug the gaping hole at right back. Lee has played there at times for club and country and does possess enough endeavor and technical skill to excel in that spot in MLS.
Although the position swap appears more convoluted than onerous, Lee does face a challenge to find his form after a lengthy layoff. Lee left Al Hilal in the summer – the Saudi league follows the European calendar – and spent the past six months away from first-team football. It may take some time for Lee to adjust to the rigorous physical demands of MLS on and off the field, though his experience with long haul flights while commuting from Europe to Asia for international duty could prove useful on his new journey.
The peculiarities and potential pitfalls of this move should not obscure the fact that Lee can and likely will prove a useful signing for the Whitecaps. Even if Lee earns more than the typical MLS fullback and plays out-of-position on the right, he will still lend his ability and his knowledge to a side in need of both qualities. In the end, those fundamental contributions may prove enough for a club in need of reliability and stability heading into its second season.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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