HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Lee Nguyen was taking a stroll past the decorated windows of the luxury boutiques in stylish District 1 on Christmas Eve when a sharply dressed young woman walking past stopped to greet him.
“Hi, how have you been?” she asked him in perfect English. “Nice to see you again!”
Who on earth was that pretty young thing?
“Her name is Tang Thanh Ha,” the former US international explained to MLSsoccer.com, cracking a sheepish smile. “She’s sort of the 'it' girl in Vietnam right now.”
Pop starlets are just the famous ones among the masses who recognize Nguyen these days. The 24-year-old gets extended glances throughout the city most still call Saigon, and indeed, in many other parts of Vietnam. The Dallas native is also all over local newspapers, magazine covers and TV news reports.
He may not be the best player in the country, but Nguyen is without a doubt the most famous. After all, former protégés of Guus Hiddink just don’t come to the V-League, and before Nguyen, no American had ever played here professionally either.
By now, most US fans know Nguyen’s unique story. A decorated youth prospect in Texas, Nguyen took his talents straight to Europe after a year at Indiana University, spending three seasons at PSV Eindhoven and Randers FC. But when the options dried up – as did the national-team interest – the onetime U-20 starlet took a wild chance on a lucrative offer from the country of his parents’ birth and set up shop with Hoang Anh Gia Lai of the V-League.
[inlinenode:326877]For just about any American prospect, that’s about as close to footballing purgatory as there is. But Nguyen was convinced that a good run of form in Vietnam’s quickly improving top flight would help him get back on Bob Bradley’s radar.
It hasn’t yet, but Nguyen has found something even more rare: the type of fame and fortune that only the top pro athletes experience. He gets VIP treatment at all the clubs. He’s in the gossip pages. He gets paid in US dollars. He even has his own driver.
It would be easy enough to sum up Nguyen there, at the idea that he's simply famous for being famous, or being an anomaly in his ancestral homeland. After all, he's an American, but he's Vietnamese-American. And he played in Europe for Hiddink, who famously led South Korea to the World Cup semifinals in 2002 and made himself a household name in Asian soccer that carries the same resonance today as it did nearly a decade ago.
But for Nguyen’s part, he’s actually shown glimpses that he's more than just a premier name with links to Europe and the US. He became an instant sensation when HAGL first introduced him in January 2009, and he went on to collect a dozen goals and 16 assists in 24 games through all competitions.
That was good enough to earn him a training stint with Arsenal that summer. It didn’t yield a move back to Europe, and an offer from MLS didn’t pan out – but it did earn him a move last March to Becamex Binh Duong, one of Vietnam’s power clubs, based in a fast-growing suburb about 20 miles north of sprawling HCM City.
And his star has never burned brighter. Every Vietnamese soccer fan – and that’s pretty much all of them in this soccer-crazed republic of 86 million – knows Nguyen’s game. A Buddhist monk told MLSsoccer.com he admired Nguyen’s technical ability, which he said is obviously a product of the Dutch school. A cabbie said Nguyen shows excellent combination play that’s rare in the V-League. A professional tour guide said he’s overrated, but hey, you can’t please everyone.
“It’s surreal, man,” he said of his reputation, which is on the line as the V-League kicks off the 2011 season this weekend. “The pressure is a lot greater now that I’m at Binh Duong.”
Nguyen suffered a severely sprained ankle last season that limited him to a few scant appearances for his new club. Now healthy, he’s expected to be a key component in one of the V-League’s strongest sides, which is bankrolled by a Vietnamese conglomerate. In their chase to regain their third league title in five seasons, and first since 2008, Binh Duong have spent heavily, including reinforcements from Africa and Brazil.
But Nguyen can help his team in another way. V-League rules limit foreign players on each club to four, and Binh Duong are trying to get the former Hoosier a Vietnamese passport. That would allow Nguyen to count as a domestic player and enable the club to add more foreign talent.
“I’m told it’s close to happening,” Nguyen said, adding that the process is much easier since both of his parents were born in Vietnam.
Interestingly, that would also raise an entirely unexpected conundrum for Nguyen. Should he be granted that passport, he would have the option to switch his international eligibility according to FIFA rules, since he only has three senior caps for the US – and none since appearing in the 2007 Copa América.
[inlinenode:326879]Would he be willing to abandon his dream to play for the US again should a new avenue to play international soccer arise?
“It’s definitely hard,” he admitted. “I’ve always wanted to play for the national team and I’m so lucky I already had the chance. But I can’t think about that now. I’m making this change for my club team so they can build as strong a side as possible.
“Bradley isn’t calling me, so it comes down to the [national-team] coaches. If Vietnam were to call me, that’s something I’d deal with then.”
In the meantime, Nguyen’s future in Asia looks very bright. He plays in an up-tempo 4-3-3 attack, similar to the one Hiddink ran at PSV, and can improve his stock greatly this season with a quality side around him. His contract expires in September, at which point he’ll have another big decision to make: Stay in Vietnam or go somewhere else?
Nguyen would be happy to stay put, but also says his agent has received interest from clubs in the Japanese and Korean leagues, both of which offer more financial reward and more exposure. His ultimate goal is to return home to MLS, adding that “the offer needs to be right” both financially and timing-wise.
Every A-list celebrity should know how to negotiate. Just another day living the dream.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.