Since being named Gatorade Boys Soccer High School Player of the Year out of his Dallas-area high school in 2005, Lee Nguyen has traveled many miles, some of them off the beaten path, to get to where he is today.
Things didn't always go smoothly for Nguyen, with the New England playmaker getting his career off to a less-than-ideal start before landing with the Revs in 2012. Now entering his fifth season in MLS, Nguyen is a legitimate star in the league and an emerging member of the US men's national team.
Just how has Nguyen's journey affected him? Let's find out:
The road less traveled
After one season at Indiana University, where he was named national freshman of the year by Soccer America, Nguyen began his professional career with Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.
After only two appearances in two years there, he moved on to play for Randers FC in Denmark for two seasons before Vietnamese side Hoang Anh Gia Lai came along in 2009 with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I enjoyed my time there,” said Nguyen, whose father Pham emigrated from Vietnam to the United States in 1975. “The fans were great. They made it a great experience for me.”
So you want to be a rock star?
The first American to play in the V.League 1, Nguyen spent a season with Hoang Anh Gia Lai and another with Becamex Bing Doung. He had an almost rock star-like level of fame in Vietnam, an eye-opening experience for the then 23-year-old.
“Yeah, I was a bit of a celebrity over there,” Nguyen said. “I remember one time after a game I had to use security to help me get to the bus because my jersey, my shorts were all getting pulled from left and right from the fans. That was probably the craziest.”
Seeing what was once missed
This offseason Nguyen got an opportunity to visit Vietnam for the first time since he moved to MLS. This time around, he got a better look at the beauty of the country, something he missed when he was playing there.
“[I] went to Vietnam and Thailand for a couple of weeks in the offseason,” he said. “It was great because when I was playing over there, most of the time in the offseason, the time I had off, I tried to be back in the States as much as I could. So this time around I was trying to get over there to basically try to see the sights and go to more of the things I didn’t get to see when I was there.”
While having status in Vietnam was nice, Nguyen didn't sniff the US national team while playing there. He wanted another shot after debuting with the US senior side in 2007, and engineered his move to MLS with an eye on making it happen.
He first landed in Vancouver, but was waived by the Whitecaps prior to the 2012 season. He was picked up by the Revs, and, after three solid seasons in New England, finally made his return to the national team in November 2014.
“It’s tough,” said Nguyen of waiting so long between call-ups. “Obviously you go through and you try to play and make the most of your career. At the same time it was tough to be seen [in Vietnam]. So I wanted to get back and try to prove myself again, make a stamp in the States.”
Getting the opportunity to travel this past offseason was something that Nguyen feels was greatly beneficial to his mind and body.
After the 2014 season, in which the Revolution went to the MLS Cup final, there was almost no down time for Nguyen as he quickly entered the US Men’s National Team’s January training camp and then transitioned into the 2015 MLS season. Though he again participated in the USMNT's January camp, he had more time this year, as the Revs season ending after a Knockout Round loss to D.C. United on October 28.
“Mentally, physically it was a good time off,” said Nguyen, who admitted that the time away from the game helped reset him ahead of the start of USMNT camp.
Getting the hang of this USMNT thing
Nguyen made his first January camp appearance with the National Team in 2015, but didn’t quite take full advantage of his opportunity, failing to truly impress head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
This year was vastly different. He entered camp with a calm mindset and became one of the standout performers, turning in solid shifts in friendly wins against Iceland and Canada. He even earned high praise from Klinsmann, who called him "one of the winners" of the camp.
“The camp was great,” said Nguyen. “Lots of familiar faces. It was just a little more relaxed this time. We didn’t have as many two-a-days and I think a lot of it we were focused on trying to get our fitness levels back and high in the first week or so. Mainly we were trying to get ready for the games.
“It was great. I got to make a few starts and it was great to be able to wear the jersey. It’s always an honor. To enjoy that experience is a proud moment and I tried to make the most of it.”
Comfort is key
Nguyen points to a greater level of comfort with the national team as one of the main reasons for his continued progress within the group.
Since his return to the team in November 2014, Nguyen had made four sub appearances for the USMNT before starting twice for the Americans against Iceland and Canada to kick off 2016.
“The more times you get called in, the more comfortable you’re going to get,” said Nguyen. “Playing with a lot of the core guys helps. They’ve been instrumental in helping us get comfortable with the squad. It’s basically being comfortable and enjoying yourself so you can play like you do with your club team.”
The hair up there
Another area where Nguyen is comfortable is with his hairstyles, a subject of discussion for many on and off the pitch.
From the ponytail/headband combo to the swooping, bleached blond wave, he enjoys keeping things interesting up top.
“I like to change it up every now and then,” said Nguyen. “It adds a bit of personality. I enjoy it. It seems like the fans always enjoy it as well. You’ve got to keep it fresh at all times.”
Where we’re going, we don’t need roads
Nguyen may keep his hair fresh, but that's not always the case with his Jeep.
Looking something like Bumblebee on steroids, the Texas native is not afraid to taking his rugged vehicle off-roading whenever he gets the chance.
“One of my buddies knows a place in Dallas that soups up Jeeps,” said Nguyen. “I wanted to get it done in the offseason, so I can enjoy it in the summer in Boston because there’s a lot of places to get off-road and obviously, getting down to the beach. It’s definitely an all-purpose vehicle in Boston.”
Different club, same drive
When he isn’t driving through defenses or across the beaches of New England, you can likely find Nguyen driving golf balls.
“I learned from the Golf Channel,” Nguyen said when asked how golf became an integral part of his life. “I got into it probably about seven years ago. I really enjoyed the game and had a lot of respect for it. You learn how hard it is and you basically start to respect all the guys that make it their careers. I was basically getting into golf by watching a lot of it. It became a good hobby for me after training. Now I try to play a few times a week, as much as I can.”
As far as who is the best golfer on the Revolution, the usually humble Nguyen hesitated for only half a second before declaring, “I’d have to say myself.”