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World Cup in LA: How second-generation Korean-Americans choose a team

Every weekend, Korean soccer players get together for a match. This one was played at La Cañada High School. Josie Huang/KPCC

This piece is part of KPCC's occasional series on the World Cup in Los Angeles, which takes a look at the diverse communities of Southern California through the lens of their love for their country's teams. Let us know whom you're rooting for in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter (@KPCC).

On a soccer field in La Cañada Flintridge, some of the older players shout in Korean at their teammates.   

"Run faster!" 
"Pass! Pass!"

​The oldest players are in their 50s, the youngest in their teens, many of them born here or raised here since they were little. They joke about the scoldings they get on the field and how their play is more aggressive than the older guys: longer passes and going for runs. 

But when it comes to the World Cup, the generation gap closes. Most in the soccer club want to see Korea win. Il Han Lee, 19, said it's about identity. 

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"You know, they say America is like a big pot – a big melting pot, where all kind of races come in," said Lee, who emigrated to the U.S. when he was 8. "But if you don’t remember your heritage, you don’t know who you are.”

On Tuesday, Korea plays its first World Cup match against Russia. Lots of new immigrants root for their home country. But second-generation Koreans are just as passionate about the World Cup, and many — though not all — want to see their ancestral country win a trophy. 

Alex Yi, 32, said the enthusiasm is especially infectious in places with large Korean populations like LA. Coming into the World Cup, Korea’s chances of winning do not look good — fans readily admit it — but Yi said that won’t dim World Cup fever in Koreatown.

“Whenever it comes around, it spreads from one person to the next," said Yi, who coaches college soccer. "I think every restaurant you go to has a poster of the team. It’s on every TV station.”

A way to reconnect

For some Korean-Americans with less of a connection with the culture, soccer actually makes them feel closer.

"It sparked an attempt to reconnect with my Korean cultural past and heritage," said Korean soccer writer Roy Ghim. 

Ghim will be contributing to The Independent's World Cup coverage of Korean soccer and writes at his own blog Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors. It’s an English-language site for fans of Korean soccer who can’t read or write Korean like himself.

Ghim used to be a casual soccer fan. But then in 2002, Korea surprised the soccer scene by making it to the World Cup semifinals.

"Seeing fellow Koreans just somehow do really well in the biggest tournament in the world — not only were they underdogs," Ghim said. "It felt like alright, this is my tribe that’s showing up today.”

When Korea went on to take the bronze at the 2012 Olympics, Ghim started his blog to get the latest news out to other excited fans thirsting for information. 

Role models

Mary Yu Danico, a sociologist at Cal Poly Pomona, said part of the thrill around watching the Korean team is that it's unusual to see Asian athletes on television. 

"It’s an opportunity for folks to say we are beyond the various stereotypes that the U.S. landscape tends to pigeonhole us into," said Danico said, comparing the Korea team's popularity to the "Linsanity" surrounding the rise of NBA player Jeremy Lin. 

Danico studies second-generation Korean-Americans, and 1.5’ers like her – immigrants who came to the U.S. as young kids. She said soccer offers a way for Korean-Americans to keep their parents' culture as some lose the ability to speak Korean, and intermarry.

“We look for some things like food or sports to pass down to our children because it’s hard to pass down the language,” Danico said. 

Not about patriotism

Danico said it’s not that Korean-Americans are trying to snub the U.S. team. It’s just about Korean pride. Plus, soccer’s just bigger and more exciting in Korea than in the U.S.

That’s not to say there aren’t Korean-American fans of U.S. soccer.

John Kim, a doctor from Irvine, easily rattles off the names on the US squad: Tim Howard, the goal-keeper. Geoff Cameron – he plays center back. All the new German-born players filling the roster.

Kim hasn’t been back to Korea for nearly 30 years so that when it comes to soccer stars, "Michael Bradley comes easier off my tongue than like Kim Bo-kyung, Park Chu-Young."

But then we talk about if Korea were to go up against the U.S., he would definitely choose Korea.  

He said he’s thinking about his two young sons.   

"When they see somebody like them succeed, it allows them to think it’s a possibility they can be that good," Kim said.

Neither US nor Korea

But for some Korean-American fans, it’s not so important for Korea to win.

After the soccer in La Canada, some of the younger players share their World Cup picks.

Jony Lee, who was born in Argentina, wants that country's team to win.   

Club mate Calvin Yi taunts: "Weak team!"

"I think Germany is going to win," Yi said. "I’ve been supporting Germany for years.”

To which Lee squawks, "Sit down!"

What both will say is that they follow international soccer closely and so are more discerning about which teams they admire.

"We actually know soccer well, so we know Korea’s not going to make it," Yi said. 

More important to them is a team’s style of play and talent than where it’s from. They just can't agree on who is better.

When Yi makes the prediction that "it's going to be Germany and Brazil in the final," that just starts a new round of debate.