BRADENTON, Fla. — A 6,846-mile journey brought Louisville City FC’s only rookie to the world-renowned and state-of-the-art IMG Academy for his first preseason camp as a professional. Out of the 20 men signed to contracts for the 2016 season, only Jonghyun Son has yet to make his professional debut.
“Son has come in and bought right into what we are doing here,” Louisville City FC coach James O’Connor said. “He is a gifted player with a great work rate and energy about him. As a young player, he is always watching and learning and trying to grow, and that’s exactly what we are looking for from young players.”
Son’s passion for soccer was born out of the 2002 FIFA World Cup — held in his home country of South Korea — when he was 10 years old. Coming from an academic and well-educated family in Hoein-myeon, Son didn’t learn the game from his father or brothers or even his neighbors.
He learned the game from Golden Boot winner Ronaldo and his trophy-raising Brazilian national team.
“I watched the games,” Son said. “I was fascinated. That’s when I first kicked a ball, as a 10-year-old. My family didn’t want me to play soccer; they wanted me to do well in my studies and to become a great doctor or lawyer.
“In South Korea, if you play soccer you cannot get a good education. Soccer is all you do, you act like a professional from a young age.”
Without telling his parents, Son filed to transfer schools to join a program that had a soccer team he could play on. His family didn’t find out Son’s aspirations until it was already completed, then he made the phone call home.
“I just called them and told them I wanted to play soccer,” Son said. “I just signed in and began living in the game. They understood eventually and said, ‘Alright, just go play and do well.’
“They thought I’d just play as a kid and then quit to return to my studies.”
In elementary school, Son was invited to join the Under-12 and -13 South Korean National Teams. It wasn’t until then that he began realizing that he was a different kind of player.
“As a kid, training isn’t that intense or specifically focused,” Son said. “But it was then that I saw myself fitting into the teams and progressing. In high school, we would practice twice a day — in between light studies — and we would do that six days a week. The seventh day was for visiting family.”
After high school, Son first came to the U.S. without any understanding of the English language or American culture.
“My sister was in Austin, Texas, because her husband worked for Samsung,” Son said. “She told me that America had many tryouts for many different teams. I came in 2012 and it was hard to make friends because I didn’t speak English.”
Son enrolled in classes at University of Illinois-Chicago and made a few Korean friends that helped him translate and understand, but he learned his usage of English from the unlikeliest cast of characters: Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel and Monica.
“The way I really learned English is kind of funny, actually,” Son said. “I learned a lot from Netflix; I learned to speak English from watching Friends. That’s my favorite show”
Son was invited to Orlando City SC, in its USL incarnation, in 2012 — the same Orlando City that O’Connor played for in 2012, but the two never crossed paths. The was a miscommunication between the club and Son — who were communicating through translators — so he joined Chicago Inferno in the Premier Development League.
In 2014-15, Son transferred to Holy Cross College to play two years. As a converted holding midfielder, Son was named to the first team All-CCAC, leading the Saints to the semifinals of the CCAC tournament.
Playing his natural full back position as a junior, Son started all 20 games and scored five times. In critical matches versus Cornerstone and St. Xavier, the South Korean scored the game-winning goals. The latter, coming off of a free kick from 20 yards out less than two minutes into extra time, propelling the Saints to conference semifinals.
Son finished his collegiate career with six goals, six assists, and 18 points, to go along with his postseason accolades.
“At Holy Cross, the intensity level was ok; it was average,” Son said. “But now, here with Louisville City, everything is so intense and I love it. Everyone is the definition of a professional and everyone is working to become the best and most disciplined. I am an intense player with an intense playing style, so this is the perfect team for me to be on.”
Son is ready to make his professional debut this season, with that serving as another signature landmark in his world-wide journey within soccer. But to him, the story is the team and where its going — not where he’s been as an individual.
“This season may be my first as a professional,” Son said. “But all my goals are the exact same as what the team goal is. Once we accomplish what we need to as a team, then I can look back at what happened to me as an individual. It is the bigger picture that is most important to me.
“I am representing my family that has helped and supported me through so much from so many miles away. I represent Holy Cross and I play for what that program did for me. Now I play for Louisville City and the supporters that have already embraced me. I do not play for Jonghyun Son, I play for the love that people have shown me.”
Entering the 2016 preseason this month, Louisville City FC has returned 13 players from the 2015 roster while adding players like Son and MLS Cup-winning forward Chandler Hoffman, University of Louisville alumnus Paolo DelPiccolo and University of Kentucky alumnus George Davis IV.
O’Connor and his team will begin training with a two-week camp at the state-of-the-art IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., before returning to Louisville for a four-game preseason schedule.
Louisville City FC will begin regular season play on March 26 at Charlotte Independence. LouCity then returns to Louisville Slugger Field on April 2 to host New York Red Bulls II in the home opener, with a special 3 p.m. kickoff.
Fans can stay up to date with all of Louisville City’s breaking news, roster updates and ticketing information by following the Club on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Season tickets are available for Louisville City’s historic second season via the Club’s official website.