South Korean community in St. Paul embraces new Loons player Sang Bin Jeong

·8 min read

Sang Bin Jeong was well worth a brief wait on May 11.

Minnesota United’s new South Korean forward was just a few minutes late for his scheduled visit at the Sejong Academy in St. Paul. But he more than made up for it, staying later in a two-plus hour visit to the Korean immersion charter school.

While Jeong wasn’t trying to be fashionably late, he did receive the welcome of an A-list celebrity once he entered the building. It was quiet at 1:49 p.m. and boisterous one minute later.

Students from the lower school played Korean percussion instruments when Jeong walked through the school’s main doors and two shy students were gently guided forward to present him with a colorful bouquet of flowers. They exchanged bows.

“Superstar!” one adult beamed.

Jeong was then whisked to down a corridor of kids standing in front of their classrooms. The hallways were lined with printed pictures of him wearing Minnesota United’s black-and-blue colors, and the concrete walls echoed with a cacophony of screams and chants of “Jeong Sang Bin!”

Jeong zig-zagged through the school, from the basement to the third floor. He read a Korean book to kindergarten students, engaged in a crafting project with first graders, listened to a musical performance from older students, played soccer with the school’s adolescent girls team and held an extended Q&A with upper-school kids.

In countless ways, Jeong went above and beyond throughout the school visit, making a decision on his own accord to stay a half hour past the scheduled end to answer more questions.

The 21-year-old knows the spotlight is on him within this minority community and within a broader adopted home of Minnesota. He showed that commitment when he arrived in the U.S. in late March and had his formal introductory news conference at Allianz Field, which is only one mile from Sejong Academy.

“As a Korean, I feel a big responsibility,” Jeong said through a Korean translator. “I have to perform, which is something that’s very important. As I perform, it’s a way to open the door for other Koreans, so they can start coming more into this league.”

Jeong left Korea at age 19 to play for Wolverhampton of the world-class English Premier League in 2021, but a work visa issue in the U.K., which was outside his control, forced him to go on loan with Grasshopper Club Zurich in the Swiss Super League over the past two seasons.

In recent years, MNUFC has developed an affinity for the skill and sweat equity built into South Korean players and Jeong has become a trailblazer in Minnesota.

With a $2.6 million transfer fee to Wolverhampton and a three-year contract with the Loons, Jeong became the only current South Korean national within Major League Soccer, and one of only five Korean-born players to compete in MLS since the league started in 1996.

Jacob Chae, who is Sejong Academy’s operations administrator, was the perfect person to be Jeong’s personal tour guide at the school. Chae had followed Jeong’s career since he was a teenager, from the Suwon Bluewings in the K League, over to Europe and through cameos with the South Korean national team.

“When I met him, I got goose bumps,” Chae said.

More than 100 members of Sejong Academy were inside Allianz Field when Jeong made his Minnesota United home debut against Orlando City on April 15. Jeong’s visit was the byproduct of emails between the school and the club. A photo of Sejong and Jeong on the field after the match was printed and plastered to a lobby wall for Jeong’s visit.

Jeong didn’t score a goal against Orlando in front of his Korean friends, but he did register his first MLS goal in Vancouver a few days before his school visit. Feeling a responsibility to produce on the field, that debut goal was “meaningful” to him.

Jeong didn’t need that goal in front of Sejong students that day. One class gave him a stack of greeting cards. He signed numerous autographs and took countless selfies, including with teachers who snuck out of their classrooms to meet him.

“Oh my god,” one female teacher said while blushing to one of her co-workers.

“It was a really good opportunity because I think here is more comfortable than Switzerland,” Jeong told the Pioneer Press through a Korean interpreter in late May. “Some students already know me. Some students really like soccer, but some students really like Korea, and that moved me. I’m really thankful.”

Given his stardom inside those walls in the Midway neighborhood, Jeong could have coasted. He did the opposite.

During the percussion performance, he moved to the music and said, “I feel like I’m in Korea right now.”

Jeong later told the Pioneer Press that listening to the music was the favorite part of the entire visit. It didn’t show at the time.

When the first-grade students were figuring out how to cut a paper jersey of Jeong with MNUFC and the South Korean national team, he personally helped a few and scanned the room for ones who needed extra assistance. Once he finished reading a book in Korean, he empathized with the kindergarteners, saying he knows learning the language is hard but encouraged them to keep going.

Before the soccer practice portion in the school’s outdoor yard along University Avenue, Jeong held the door for every member of MNUFC’s traveling party and a reporter. How many star players do that, especially when they are the main attraction?

Once that easy-going session with upper-school girls was done, one young woman swooned. “He is so handsome!” she blurted out without shyness.

Jeong was asked many questions during his visit. Why did he get into playing soccer? His dad was a coach. When did he start playing the game? He had a ball when he was 2 or 3 years old, but started to really learn the technical aspects around age 5.

A full Q&A session with the upper-school students dived in a bit deeper. It started off with a quintessential soccer question: Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Messi, he said without hesitation.

What’s the most important quality in a soccer player? Technical skills.

Does he like Minnesota? He said he had only been here a month, but his teammates were helping him a lot. And compared to Switzerland, he likes Minnesota better.

Does he have a girlfriend? No. His favorite color? Blue. His favorite food? Seafood. If he could have any career outside of soccer what would it be? Baseball player.

What club in the world would he want to play for, if he could? He said that was a sensitive question, but then answered Manchester City. Which player in the world does he want to play with most? Manchester City attacking midfielder Kevin de Bruyne. Could Minnesota United beat Arsenal? It wouldn’t be easy, he said, but with a strong mindset the Loons would try.

If he could spend 24 hours with anyone, who would it be? Paris Saint Germain and French national team forward Kylian Mbappe to glean his habits — from his daily schedule to his diet.

Jeong’s liaison, Chae, then added that Jeong’s nickname is the Korean Mbappe. Jeong subtly shook his head.

Has Jeong played in the World Cup? Not yet, he said with a smile, but the goal is to be a regular piece of the South Korean national team. That answer drew a big applause.

As the questions stacked up and the scheduled time ran out, Chae asked Jeong if he was ready to finish. Jeong insisted they keep going and they went on more than 30 minutes — well exceeding the few minutes he was tardy at the start of the visit.

“He never said no to students or the staff,” Chae said in an interview. “It’s like, OK, this guy is really engaged with the fans and a very nice person, very polite. It was like, OK, this guy has a great future. I can tell.”

Sejong thanked Jeong profusely for his visit, but “Sang Bin said, ‘No, thank you for making it happen. Thank you for managing all of this,’ ” Chae relayed. “He has really humbled mindset. And that actually made me to be more of a big fan fan of him.”

MNUFC is a big supporter of Sang Bin as well. When a new foreign player comes to MLS, a learning curve is built in as they adjust to culture shock, a different style of play and a lengthy travel schedule. Loons manager Adrian Heath said that has not been an issue for Jeong.

Jeong turned 21 in April, but has a maturity beyond his years. When the team lost to Houston in the U.S. Open Cup earlier this month, it returned to Minnesota around 3 a.m. Wednesday and players were given that day off. Jeong still showed up at the club’s training grounds in Blaine.

On Thursday, the Loons had a lighter training session with an MLS game coming Saturday night in St. Paul. But Jeong stayed more than a half hour after practice to work on his long-range shots in Blaine.

It’s typical for the assistant kit man to go fetch the few errant shots that end up on the other side of the fence. But Jeong went to go pick them up himself, revealing his humble dedication outside the spotlight of his school visit.

“I think he has acclimatized absolutely magnificently,” Heath said Thursday. “He’s a great kid. … There are a lot of good days ahead for Sang Bin; that’s for sure.”

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