Should Lee Seung-woo Be Fast Tracked?

The AFC U-16 Championship is done with, and South Korea isn’t the champion. No, the title headed north over the 38th parallel to Pyongyang as the North Korean team beat South Korea 2-1 in the final. Despite the loss, South Korea’s Lee Seung-woo finished the tournament as top scorer and was named tournament MVP. The honor is deserved, Lee Seung-woo scored 5 goals and had 4 assists in five matches. Such performances led many to suggest that Lee Seung-woo should be advanced to an older age group such as the U-20 or U-23 side. But is that a good idea?

Lee Seung-woo File

Age: 16 (1/6/98)
Height: 1.73m/5’8″
Weight: 60kg/132lb
Position: Center forward
Club: FC Barcelona (Juvenil A)
National Team: South Korea (U-16)


  • Ball control
  • Dribbling
  • Finishing
  • Pace
  • Passing
  • Balance


  • Undersized
  • Small

The U-16 tournament was the first time I’ve really watched Lee Seung-woo play (full matches), and the first time I’ve ever watched him perform over a series of games. Prior to this event, I’d only seen the highlights of his Barca youth games here and there. It was enough for me to see that Lee Seung-woo certainly had raw talent and ability, but I remained a bit skeptical about some of the tags and hype that was building around him. Another way of saying that is, I was cautiously optimistic he would become something similar to what people were saying he would.

First off, my general thoughts and impressions of Lee Seung-woo since I haven’t really shared them before.

I was impressed with Lee Seung-woo. His balance, finishing, and dribbling abilities were everything that people have said about him. For a 16 year old it was fantastic, and I would certainly posit that his technical ability surpasses many on the senior squad. His passing was good, but I think comparisons with Messi in that regard are wide of the mark. His four assist tally is a bit glossy in my opinion. Syria’s defending and keeping were dreadful in that one.

I suppose the thing that stood out to me the most, and contrasts with his “Little Messi” tag is his personality and attitude. While Messi is known for his quiet demeanor on and off the pitch, Lee Seung-woo seems like the type (at least for now) that isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. His comments on Japan prior to the match serve as one example of this. Can you imagine Messi saying something similar about Brazil? Probably not. I also think of the final against North Korea. South Korea had a fast break going, Lee Seung-woo passed to Kim Jung-min (I think), and Kim shot from a difficult (but not impossible) angle. Lee was furious. He threw his arms out and pointed at the spot in front of him and gave Kim a look. Why didn’t you pass it back to me? I remember Lee Seung-woo being on the end of a number of hefty challenges and him shooting a number of looks at the referee, looking for a foul, a booking. Why this is relevant (in my opinion of course) will be discussed later.

So, let’s bring this all into focus. Should Lee Seung-woo be advanced quicker through the ranks? Is there any point in Lee spending next season with the U-17 team, and then the U-20, U-23, and then finally in five or six years joining the senior squad?

Let’s start with reasons why he should be moved quicker. The first, and most important reason, is his ability. He’s good enough. I would say he’s certainly better than Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook. He’s got pace, technique, dribbling, power, and finishing ability. What’s not to love? Additionally, his natural game seems to suit the way Korea plays. He can stretch defenses with his running and can drop deeper into midfield and help the buildup. He could be a nightmare for opposition defenders and coaches. Push your defenders up high to close the space down and Lee Seung-woo can beat them with skill or pass into the space for players like Son Heung-min to run into. Drop deep to keep the pacey players in front of the defense, and Lee can keep them dropping deeper and deeper until he’s within shooting range. A player who can keep defenders guessing is something the team really needs.

Another reason is simple logic. Is there any benefit for him to play with the U18 team or U23 team? Son Heung-min rarely featured for Korea at the youth levels, and basically stopped after the U18(?) level. It doesn’t seem to have harmed him too much. Lee Seung-woo is arguably even more talented than Son is, so shouldn’t Lee move at least as quickly as Son did (Son debuted with the senior side at 18) if not faster? You could argue that Lee Seung-woo would benefit from the gradual increase in physicality and skill, but once you hit the U20/U23 level there doesn’t seem to be that great a difference.

Finally, the team needs a center forward. Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook at serviceable immediate options, but neither are really long-term considerations. Park Chu-young is done. His inability to sign with another European team, and his unwillingness to consider other options at home or in smaller leagues tells me his heart and mind are not in the right place. Kim Seung-dae looked an interesting option, but he seems set to become a midfielder. Ji Dong-won is constantly injured and seems to have moved permanently into the midfield. Starting to integrate Lee Seung-woo now gives the team a long-term option who can form playing relations with the core vets (Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong) as well as the younger attackers coming in (Son Heung-min).

But, there are some reasons for Lee Seung-woo not to jump up yet. At 16 is he ready? Is a 16 year old capable of handling the pressure, expectations, and physicality of the senior level? One of Lee Seung-woo’s Barca teammates, Alen Halilovic, made his debut with the Croatian senior side when he was 16. Recently Martin Odegaard of Norway made his senior debut at 15. Odegaard was even considered one of Norway’s best players in that match. Halilovic even made a short cameo appearance when Croatia played Korea last year. So, Lee’s age on it’s own should not preclude him from consideration. I do have concerns about Lee Seung-woo’s ability to handle the physicality (see the North Korea game), but they are not great enough for me to think he can’t deal with it. There are plenty of slight players playing and doing well at the senior level.

But, Lee Seung-woo will need to adjust his game to play at the higher level against bigger defenders who will regularly put him on the ground when they can (see Son Heung-min against Venezuela). This is partially when I spoke of his personality on the pitch earlier comes in. If Lee Seung-woo is going to be more Neymar/Ronaldo in how he deals with physical attention, i.e. fall to the ground in pain/agony and look for a foul/booking, then so be it. Set pieces and direct free kick opportunities are very valuable at the senior level, especially at bigger tournaments where teams usually tighten up on defense. But, Lee will also need to be a little more attentive to how referees are calling games. A foul is a foul, but sometimes Lee seemed to go down at the slightest contact. If it becomes obvious the ref isn’t giving those kind of fouls, he’ll need to adjust to that and stay up when he can.

The other part of his attitude that comes to mind is in regard to the senior-junior relationship (선배-후배). In Korea, it’s well-known that this relationship is very strong among athletes. That juniors are expected to be very deferential to their seniors. Lee Seung-woo was furious with Kim Jung-min when he didn’t get the pass he wanted. Would he act similarly if that player was say Lee Chung-yong or Koo Ja-cheol? Having spent his formative years overseas, and with a foreign head coach in Stielike, I don’t know how prevalent the senior-junior relationship will come across with the senior side, but I do wonder if Lee Seung-woo would just instinctively follow it. It’s difficult for me to imagine a 16 year old (even one with prodigal talent) scolding a player like Koo Ja-Cheol (who has captained the U23 and senior side) or Son Heung-min (who has scored at the World Cup and played in the Champions League). On that note, how would the senior players react to a young 16 year old coming into their ranks? I imagine they’d accept him, but also that they would make it very clear to him that he’s at the bottom of the totem pole, regardless of his ability.

On a similar note would Lee Seung-woo be as effective on the senior side as he is with the U16. It was very clear that the U16 team is based around Lee. Virtually every offensive move either went through him or (attempted) to end with him. When Lee was not involved in the game, the team became very sluggish in attack. While Lee is very talented, I don’t think Stielike would restructure the team’s strategies to make Lee the focal point ala Messi with Argentina or Ronaldo with Portugal. Will Lee be as effective when there is Son on the left, Koo (unfortunately) behind, and Ki pulling the strings from deep?

From a non-skill perspective there are also reasons for Lee to steadily go through the age groups. Next year there is a U-17 World Cup. Lee should certainly be a part of that team. Similarly in 2017 the U-20 World Cup will be held in Korea. A wonderful chance for Korean fans to see Lee Seung-woo in person, and for Lee to play in his home country. When Lee hits the U-23 group, there is the 2020 Olympics, a chance to get that prized military exemption (assuming it’s still there). In short, there is a very good reason for Lee Seung-woo to play with each age group regardless of whether he “needs” to grow within that group.

My solution is a hybrid of things. Continue to have Lee Seung-woo represent at the various age-group levels, but make sure that he is involved at higher levels once or twice a year. For instance, continue to call him up for the U-17 team in preparation for the U-17 World Cup next year, but also give him a call with the senior squad. If you want to be very daring, call him up for the Asian Cup. Let him travel with the squad, train, and experience what it’s like. Let him train with the U-20’s in preparation for the U-20 World Cup, but bring him in for pointless senior friendlies and early round qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup against the minnows. Have him participate with the U-23 team so he can get the military exemption, but by then he should be fairly well integrated with the senior set up like Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong were by that age.

Lee Seung-woo has a considerable amount of ability and an incredibly high ceiling, and it’s important (especially given his club situation) that Korea is intelligent in how they handle him. You can’t burn him too early, but you can’t just sit on him either. It’s important that the KFA shows Lee that they recognize his performances and ability without jumping the gun. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to slowly bring him in now. Call him up. He doesn’t need to start. He doesn’t even need to play. Just bring him in. Show him glimpses of the future. The adoring crowds, the media limelight. Show him what can be his if he keeps on growing and developing.

About Jae Chee 339 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.


    • And thats just a function of the hype train thats already begun. Him being left off the team for 2018 if this hype continues would result in a protest that would make the toffee incident look like girl scout function.

    • When I say fast tracked I mean playing beyond his age group. For example, Munir (Barca/Spain) is 19 but in this year alone he’s appeared for Spain U19, U21, and senior level.

      For LSW that could mean senior level, but also mean playing with U20 as a 17/18 year old, or U23 as a 18/19 year old and so on.

  1. No, he shouldn’t be fast-tracked to the senior team immediately. However, he should be in the 2018 squad if he continues to be as good as he is. To Kimchi’s point, based on what Jae said, “fast-track” means being immediately training with the senior team. The gradual moving up that he speaks of doesn’t seem to preclude him being on the senior squad for 2018 World Cup. One thing is for sure, though. LSW definitely needs to get stronger and hopefully he has at least a tiny growth spurt.

  2. Glad there will be universal agreement in Korea for once that the team will need LSW for 2018 without question.

    Its risky though no doubt. But we are up against the wall in a lot of ways. It will be interesting to see how the next 4 years pan out for him and the NT.

    I wonder if his ego is going to be an issue for one thing on this traditionally hierarchy heavy team.

    • Meaning of course…It will be the first time we’ve had someone so young on the NT. The kid exhumes confidence, Im sure many will interpret as arrogance. The hype train is only gaining momentum from this point forward. We need to nurture his talent but we also need him to regain the public’s confidence.

      I see some friction here developing possibly. Especially with the Korean mentality.

      • That’s why I think it’d be good to start getting him in now. His hype is big, but not tremendously so. Can you imagine if he’s brought in when (in theory) he’s playing for the Barca 1st team. It’d be insane! A combo of Park Ji-sung and Son Heung-min. Get him in now, get the older guys used to him (and vice versa) and get him integrated with the set up. I’m not calling for him to be called up every time nor for him to start or even play much. Just have him at the senior team training sessions, sitting on the bench for ‘A’ matches. If there’s a garbage 5-10 minutes at the end of a friendly and the result is secure, maybe throw him in then.

        • i’m inclined to agree with Jae’s strategy. And Kimchi, the kid IS arrogant. However, I don’t mind it too much so long as he isn’t divisive. Ronaldo is pretty arrogant, but he isn’t divisive. I don’t get the sense that LSW is either, but as Jae said, he will definitely need the senior players to get used to him and vice versa.

          • Enter the Korean mentality. You cannot compare a Portuguese with a Korean when it comes to arrogance.

            We are so homogenous, we tend to take that stuff to another level.

            I just wonder which NT veteran is going to be the one to take him to the lockers for a chat. LULz

          • I am just horsing around. His arrogance is justified at this point. He’s already accomplished a lot for such a little boy. I hope he’s the real deal and can continue this trip of his.

  3. BTW, the poll isn’t a very good one, because Jae’s suggestion can actually be interpreted as a form of ‘fast-tracking,’ but his suggestion is actually the non-“fast-tracking” option.

    Now, if everyone KNEW this is what Jae meant and still voted he should be fast-tracked as Jae defines it, then y’all are a bit delusional. It’s not skills that’s the issue or even it being “too soon.” LSW is simply still a boy physically. He’s so slight and he needs to fill out a little more. He’s pushed around fairly easily even among his peers. It’s not going to be pretty against grown men. I think by around 18 or 19 he should be strong enough at least to be more ready to be integrated with the senior team. That said, I like Jae’s idea of gradual integration so that he’s exposed to the senior team early.

    • Well, I guess Jae’s being a little inconsistent with what he means by “fast-tracking” now that I read his clarification in the comments section. Jae defined fast-track as jumping past the various age brackets and going straight to the senior squad in the article, but in the comments section his own plan which is not the fast-track option in his article would be defined as fast track, since in the comments section he stated that simply moving past his age bracket would qualify as fast-tracking… Or am I misreading, Jae?

      Not that it’s a big deal whatever we call it. I like Jae’s plan whether it’s considered fast-track or not. Throwing LSW to the deep end (the senior squad) right now would be a mistake for the reason I gave above. Personally, I’m not even really that worried about the age/seniority issue. The senior squad of Korea is different than in years past. So many of the current squad have experience outside of the US and Ki has already been one who is culturally a bit off norm and even perceived as arrogant. So this won’t be new. The thing that will be new is possible superstar status of a youngster, but even then if you look at SHM, he’s at least headed to star status, and you saw him as the youngest on the squad at the World Cup being pretty free about expressing his frustrations, which normally in the hierarchically heavy Korean team would have been a no-no and even perceived as such by the Korean public. However, Son was generally praised and the team didn’t seem to be bothered by Son’s display. Probably because they cared about winning more than that. So LSW’s attitude fitting in with a team is a concern, but much more minor than it really is IMHO.

      So, my biggest concern about not throwing him to the wolves just yet is really more about him being physically ready. This is where I slightly disagree with Jae. I think the evidence shows more that it is a concern big enough to hold him back a tad from moving to the senior side too quickly. He falls a lot (sometimes a little too easily) and it’s due to to being challenged by bigger players or by constant challenges as a marked man/boy. I think he falls too easily not just because of his European training, but also simply because he’s kind of weak physically. Let him get stronger. That’s one of the differences that Jae didn’t note between Messi and LSW. Messi was much stockier and physically ready to run with and be challenged by the big boys than LSW is currently.

      • Perhaps a bit of both, although I don’t think I was inconsistent with my definition. I think though that, perhaps people are misinterpreting my vision of how to include LSW in the senior set up. People seem to be taking the idea as a full promotion to the senior side (called up to every game and playing substantial minutes). That’s not what I’m advocating because he’s not ready for that.

        Also, I’m not terribly worried about the Korean public. They already seem to be ready to kiss his butt so much has the hype machine built him up. My concern is more about his function within the team. As far as Korea goes, he’s used to teams being built around him, where he is the center of things and the one that makes things go. Will players accept that from a (now 16) 18 y/o? Granted there are more players in Europe away from the hierarchy, but don’t underestimate it’s strength.

    • It should be noted though that LSW is bigger physically than Halilovic who is playing Barca B and Croatia senior. I know it’s another comment you made Daniel (I’m just answering it here), but was Messi that much bigger than LSW when he debuted for senior sides? I don’t think it was that big a difference. Personally I don’t think LSW is really going to become a ‘physical’ or stocky player. I suspect he’ll look a bit more like Neymar than Messi.

      • I think Messi was stockier and stronger even as a youngster. I agree with the Neymar comparison. But, Neymar at 16 was equally not ready physically. I mean, you could argue he’s barely ready physically now. Lol.

        • Maybe a bit, but I don’t think he was significantly bigger. Anyway, I agree LSW does need to get stronger if he’s to cut the long seasons at the top level (league, cup, Europe, international). But, I think it’s a bit overblown considering there are other players like Neymar, Muniain, Giovinco, Halilovic, Insigne who are playing in full leagues/senior international level with success.

          • I agree. His physique shouldn’t be an issue. He needs to get stronger overall but I prefer his overall physique to stay the way it is now. It suits with balance & the way he operates imo.

            Anyways, as Jae mentioned… there are plenty who are smaller/shorter who are doing well. Max Meyer of Schalke is only 1.69m (LSW is 1.73m according to few websites).

          • I didn’t say his physique needs to change. I’m saying because his physique is slighter he needs to get stronger. Also, I’ve seen Max listed as the same height as LSW at 1.73. BTW, I’m pretty sure LSW is not 1.73. That said, I’ve seen Max’s build. I think he’s a good comparison physically, but his legs are much bigger. But he’s also older than LSW. Honestly, that just proves my point. He needs to get a little stronger and just fill out more into his more adult frame. That’s just normal. If you have less concerns than I do, I respect that, and simply respectfully disagree. It doesn’t really matter though, since regardless of our different ratiocination, we seem to be in agreement overall with the steady integration rather than immersion into the senior side.

          • I didn’t want to bring him up but Shinji Kagawa is good comparison. Checkout his overall build when he first joined Dortmund. He’s still scrawny and slight but he was worse at 21. He excelled at Dortmund and considering LSW is 16, he will naturally get stronger as he gets older. So yea, I’m not too worried.

            Btw, Raheem Sterling is another good example.

  4. I’m actually against LSW being fast tracked for following reason (I prefer cautious approach)

    1. LSW has FIFA ban to deal with. Unless it is overturned by CAS, that’s nearly 2 years without consistent football. No matter how talented he is, it’s going to hamper his development. However, as Jae mentioned, I do advocate LSW to be trialed with U-20 (although, I suspect he will skip it) and U-23 Olympic Qualifiers. It will be his job to earn the right to represent Korea in Olympics but at least this should be an alternative for him to get few competitive games during the ban.

    2. If LSW’s FIFA ban were to be overturned by CAS, I suspect he’ll be integral with Barca’s Juvie A and later Barca B. If he does move up to Barca B, I suspect he’ll eventually earn his way to Korean senior team (along with, it will be good indication of how ready he is).

    3. LSW is 16 already. Leo Messi debuted for Barca B, senior team and even represented Argentina at 16 years old. He was already playing with adults. You can make the same case for Hallivoic (sp?) in Croatian league and Odengaard (sp?) in Norway. That’s not the case with LSW atm. You can blame it on FIFA ban (Barca clearly violated the rule btw) or whatever, but until we know how useful he is playing with “adults”.. LSW being fast tracked or making a debut with Korean senior team should be approached cautiously & slowly.

    • 1. Is another reason to bring him in on occasion. Just to keep him getting competitive playing time (again, not necessarily with senior squad).

      2. If the ban is overturned then that could change things. I’m operating based on the idea that it isn’t.

      3. A point I thought of, but failed to mention. His inclusion (with senior) should be approached cautiously, but I don’t think that necessarily means not at all.

      • Hmm, LSW will be 18 by 2016 Rio Olympics (or when his FIFA ban ends). Son debuted for Korea at 18. When you meant fast-tracking LSW, did you meant in comparison to Son’s progression with KNT or other world prodigies like Messi and etc?

        Unless LSW carries Korea to U-17 WC or makes the squad to 2016 Olympics (U-23 team) before he turns 18, I’m absolutely against LSW’s participation with KNT senior team. And if LSW were to make the squad after 18, I wouldn’t call it being fast-tracked since it’s the norm for talented youngsters at such age to make their debuts with senior national teams around the world.

        • I meant in comparison with Messi/Halilovic/Odegaard, etc. Honestly, just to be clear, while I don’t think it’s a bad idea to bring him to a senior training camp or meaningless friendly now, if LSW doesn’t appear until he’s 18/19 I wouldn’t be particularly bothered.

          • Unless he earns it through U-17 WC or whatever (by being the best player in tournament by big margin), I think it’s better to put less burden and scrutiny from media on the kid. Better to protect and nurture his talent.

            We have to remember, Messi won U17/20 WC with Argentina and etc. He earned his way …

          • I think that ship has sailed. Media scrutiny is here, and it’s not going anywhere. You know how much Korean media loves to hype it’s ‘stars’. Every goal he scores, every run he makes (at whatever level) will attract attention. Media will report it. People will share clips on Twitter and Vine. It’s just the way things are now.

          • Limited exposure from vine/youtube is still better than full exposure, full media scrutiny, and dissecting/analysis of young kid who is only 16.

            But yea, I agree..the hype and media scrutiny has arrived but I think it’s better to “slow” it down as much as possible compared to full assault.

  5. Kind of reminds me of Lee Chun-Soo in the arrogance department, Chunsoo was super talented as well but his head got in the way of his career. Obviously LSW is wayyy more talented but yeah, good precedent to go by, Hiddink used Lee chunsoo when he was 18 in the 2002 world cup, and see how that went to his head.
    All the precautions should be taken but i don’t think there is a negative in pushing him up age groups. He would only learn from the older folk. Just hoping Korean ‘politics’ doesn’t get in the way of him developing.

    • No. The Lee Chun Soo comparison doesn’t make sense. He was arrogant but he was never “the next Messi” type of talent and anyone rational knew that. Lee also tended to act not just arrogantly, but foolishly. LSW hasn’t shown that even at his young age, so while that can still happen, I think it’s unlikely. The difference is this: LSW has a lot of hype and has justified the hype to a large degree, and he is probably as good as he thinks he is. LCS thought himself better than he actually was. The latter is much more conducive to “letting things get to their head.”

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