Lee Nguyen could do almost anything he wanted on the field in Vietnam. But getting to the bus after the game was another story.
The scene looks something like this: He exits the locker room following a game in the Vietnamese Super League, and bedlam ensues. He can’t go around the wall of fans assembled there to adore him, he has to go right through it.
The Vietnamese David Beckham, trying to find his place in the world and, more importantly, his way through the crowd.
“People were surrounding me, trying to pull off my shirt,” Nguyen recalls. “My shin guards got stolen, one of the kids took my boot bag, and I was just trying to get to the bus at that point. I think it took about six or seven minutes, but the security guard was able to finally get to me, put his arm around me and kind of work us through the crowd.”
It doesn’t exactly work like that anymore. Although he’s a star on the field with the New England Revolution, Nguyen isn’t on magazine covers or befriending pop starlets, or being mobbed by an adoring public. When he left Vietnam in December 2011 for a career in Major League Soccer, he left behind a hefty paycheck and a celebrity lifestyle to jumpstart his career and find a place on the radar of United States national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Less rabid crowds. Calmer. Clearer. The MLS postseason, maybe MLS Cup, then the US team.
Straight on, through the clutter.
It wasn’t always as easy as it is now for Nguyen, who’s been one of the best players in MLS in 2014. When he entered the league in December 2011, he initially hoped to land with his hometown club FC Dallas – where he’d occasionally trained during his offseasons – but was instead allocated to the Vancouver Whitecaps via weighted lottery.
Things didn’t go well, and former Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie cut Nguyen a week before the 2012 opener in the lobby of an Orlando hotel.
Lee Nguyen leads all midfielders in MLS with 13 goals this season heading into the New England Revolution's match against the Columbus Crew on Saturday. (USA Today Sports)
“I came back to [MLS] to play, to prove myself,” Nguyen said. “But I knew on that team, with [Rennie], I wasn’t one of the favorites. I knew I was going to have a slim chance of playing there that season, so I was hoping that they were going to let me go and another team would pick me up. Then, after the Disney tournament, Martin brought me into the lobby of the hotel and said we’re going to waive you.”
The move was a blessing for Nguyen, who was quickly snatched by the Revs while on a plane from Florida to Vancouver, where he’d flown to pack his things. The affable playmaker didn’t take long to settle in with New England, scoring five goals and adding two assists in 30 league games in 2012 and tallying four goals and seven assists to help the club qualify for the playoffs in 2013.
He’s been nothing short of spectacular in 2014, leading all MLS midfielders with 13 goals and notching four assists in 26 regular season appearances. Heading into this weekend, he has five goals and one assist in the Revs’ five-game winning streak, a run that's vaulted New England up the Eastern Conference table and turned Nguyen into a legitimate MVP contender.
“He’s been tremendous,” says Nguyen’s Revs teammate and longtime friend Charlie Davies. “If you were able to watch games where we’re playing against Kansas City and he’s playing against Graham Zusi or we’re playing Toronto and he’s playing against Michael Bradley, he’s the guy that shines in these big games. He’s the guy that’s outplaying these national team players.”
Not that you’d know it. Up until his recent run, Nguyen hadn’t received much love nationally, flying under the radar as players like Bradley, Zusi, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan dominated headlines.
“I think he’s definitely considered underrated in our league,” says New York Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty, another longtime Nguyen friend. “If he’s playing in Seattle, LA or New York, I think he’s certainly a guy that would’ve been an All-Star this year.”
Of course, when you’ve been as far removed from American soccer’s consciousness as Nguyen has, it takes more than six strong months to strike a nerve.
The 27-year-old was once tabbed as U.S. Soccer’s next big thing, pegged in 2005 for USMNT stardom after he took home the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year Award, turned heads at the FIFA Youth Championships, led the U.S. U-19's to the prestigious Milk Cup title and starred as a freshman at Indiana.
Nguyen’s breakout year attracted plenty of professional interest, netting him contract offers from MLS, Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven and several other European clubs. He chose PSV, heading to Holland in February 2006. The move only increased the hype, and American fans started to salivate.
A few years at PSV under noted talent developer Guus Hiddink and Nguyen would surely become the talented, technical No. 10 that the USMNT hasn’t seen since Tab Ramos’ mid-90’s heyday, right?
Not quite. Nguyen never got off the ground at PSV, leaving the club in January 2008 at age 21. In two years at the club he played under four different managers and made just two first-team appearances.
“I had fun at PSV, I loved it,” Nguyen says. “But I needed to get first-team football and I wasn’t going to get it there. The guys on the team would always tell me, ‘Man, you should be playing.’ That was great to hear from your teammates, but at the end of the day it’s the coach’s decision, and I wasn’t hearing that from the coach.”
So off Nguyen went on a four-year, transcontinental soccer odyssey. His first stop was Denmark, where he signed with Superliga side Randers FC. Nguyen fared well enough there, appearing in 22 games in one year at the club.
In two years with famed Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, Nguyen played under four different managers and made just two first-team appearances. "“I had fun at PSV, I loved it,” he says. “But I needed to get first-team football and I wasn’t going to get it there. (Getty Images)
But he wasn’t getting the US call-ups he craved. Nguyen appeared for the US under head coach Bob Bradley three times in 2007 – once in a friendly against China and twice when the Americans were outmatched during the Copa America in Venezuela – but the interest waned. Knowing Bradley was unlikely to call him back anytime soon, Nguyen, feeling slightly disillusioned after three years of European frustrations, was ripe for a change of scenery.
Enter Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC. Based in the central Vietnamese city of Pleiku, Hoang Anh Gia Lai initially courted Nguyen through his Vietnamese father, presenting the elder Nguyen in January 2009 with a contract offer to pass along to his son.
At first Nguyen shook it off, maintaining that he wanted to remain in Europe. But Hoang Anh Gia Lai was persistent, insisting that Nguyen visit the club during the Danish league’s winter break. He eventually relented, flying with his dad to Vietnam, where Hoang Anh Gia Lai pitched him their vision.
The main selling point? A lucrative contract that Nguyen had no shot of finding anywhere else.
“The deal they had lined up for me was a crazy one, and it was kind of hard to say no to,” he says. “It was a lot of money at the time for me. It was one of those things where it was like, do you go this route, knowing that if you do it’s going to be hard to come back?”
Nguyen signed the contract. But by taking the money and going to Vietnam, he had knowingly entered a virtual soccer black hole. He’d taken himself completely off the grid at the age of 23, essentially removing any possibility – however remote – of getting called to the national team.
“I had a couple [USMNT] appearances before my Denmark stint, but whatever reason it didn’t pan out and I wasn’t getting called in after,” Nguyen says. “So I was like, ‘Alright, I guess I’m not going to be in the national team picture with Bob Bradley.’ And I felt that if I wasn’t in his pool or that the interest wasn’t there, I might as well go to Vietnam, make money and save up for my future.”
Nguyen played just one season at Hoang Anh Gia Lai, racking up 12 goals and 16 assists before leaving the club in March 2010 following a disagreement with his coach. He attempted to engineer a move to MLS, but, after rejecting a minimum contract offer from the league, decided to stay in Vietnam, signing with Ho Chi Minh City-based Becamex Binh Duong FC.
Injuries limited Nguyen’s impact at Binh Duong, but, despite his lack of on-field opportunities, he found himself re-energized by the August 2011 hiring of Klinsmann as US manager.
He recognized that Klinsmann wanted to implement a technical style that aligned well with his skills. Desperate to put himself back on the national team radar, Nguyen – who had just received his Vietnamese citizenship and a new, rich contract offer – knew the time had come to head to MLS, regardless of how much money he’d have to turn down from the V-League.
“I saw Jurgen take over the reins and he’s bringing in all these technical players, he wants to play football,” Nguyen says. “It was a whole different light in which you see the national team. I’m thinking I have a chance, that I would be a player that Jurgen would like, that would fit his system. That motivated me to want to come back and prove myself again, and try to get back in the good graces of the national team.”
New England head coach Jay Heaps already knew how good Nguyen could be in the right setting. He first heard of Nguyen from his old Revs teammate, ex-Hoosier and current LA assistant Pat Noonan during Nguyen’s one season at IU.
So when Rennie dumped Nguyen at the end of the 2012 preseason, Heaps pounced, marking the first time the Revs had ever signed a player off waivers.
“He’s so skillful and he can do a lot of things technically,” Heaps says. “I think when he got here we asked more of him, we wanted him to be a little bit more a little bit more two-way, make sure he defended hard, worked hard on both sides of the ball. I think that he didn’t realize how good he is at closing down, or intercepting passes or getting in passing lanes and I think that once he started doing that, I think it kind of brought out a better player.”
Nguyen showed off both sides of his game early in the second half of the Revs’ 3-1 win over Kansas City on Sept. 3, arguably their best win of the season.
- CASTROL INDEX: Where does Nguyen rank in MLS this season?
He tracked back from his advanced position, stripping a Sporting player near midfield and dropping the ball back before taking off toward goal. Always intelligent with his movement, Nguyen set the run up perfectly, arriving in the pocket of space between Sporting’s midfield and back four just in time to receive a Kelyn Rowe pass a few yards outside the area.
Nguyen controlled Rowe’s ball, touching it forward to the edge of the box and shielding a Sporting defender before curling a right-footed shot into the top corner.
No one moment can completely capture a player, but that game-winner does a suitable job of illustrating what’s made Nguyen so effective this year.
“He’s extremely unique in MLS,” Davies says. “I always knew Lee growing up as a guy that got the ball and he’s attacking, attacking, attacking. He’s never lost that part of his game, but now he’s added the patience, the possession, the smarts in the game of knowing when to go, when to hold it, when to keep it.
“He’s really developed into the ideal No. 10 player.”
These days, Nguyen’s on the hunt for trophies. He’s focused on helping New England qualify for its second-straight postseason, and, with Designated Player Jermaine Jones now anchoring the midfield, feels optimistic that the Revs can make a real run at MLS Cup.
Though he hasn’t been called to the USMNT since earning those three caps in the summer of 2007, Nguyen admits he still thinks about the national team. He’s hopeful that his consistent strong play with New England has caught the eye of Klinsmann, who will announce a squad for the USMNT’s October friendlies against Ecuador and Honduras in the coming weeks.
“Yeah of course you think about it,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to play on the national team? Who wouldn’t want to play for Jurgen?
Nguyen says despite a sometimes rugged road to success, he's thankful for the experiences. "I’m happy with my decisions," he says, "because I know I wouldn’t be the player I am if I didn’t make those choices and play where I played.” (USA Today Sports)
“But you’ve got to prove yourself, you got to make yourself worthy for that call. I think if the Revs keep doing well and we keep winning games, I think everybody will appreciate us and will give us a chance. Hopefully, that’s going to be good enough.”
More important than his national team aspirations is the fact that, after years of searching, Nguyen feels like he’s finally found a home. His career is thriving and he’s enjoying life in New England; he and his girlfriend recently moved in together and he and Davies just became part-time assistant coaches for the Boston College Men’s Soccer team.
Still, Nguyen can’t help but occasionally wonder how things might have been different had he come of age a few years later. Would he have crisscrossed the globe and entered into a soccer abyss in Vietnam had he grown up in a MLS academy? Would he have developed faster if he’d been able to sign as a Homegrown player like 19-year-old New England teammate Diego Fagundez, LA forward Gyasi Zardes or Seattle defender DeAndre Yedlin?
“You see the academies, you see the growth of MLS, and you kind of wish you were just getting into the league,” Nguyen says. “If I had this when I was younger, and I was able to train with professionals in their 20s and 30s, you just learn so much, you play so much quicker. When I was young, we only had our own age group to compete against, to make yourself better. So you were competing against guys that were in the same grade level, but now you got players like Diego who, at 16, 17, is training with guys 10 years his age. That really makes you a lot better.”
Nguyen knows that he hasn’t taken the easiest path, but he feels that each stop has given him something, helping mold him into the MLS star he is today. In Europe, he learned how to be a pro from his accomplished teammates; in Vietnam, he figured out how to be a leader; in New England, he’s put it all together.
“My path, it’s been like a roller coaster,” he said. “You start from the beginning, you go up, down, around and then you end up in the same spot that you started.
“You always think, ‘Did I make the right decision, did I make the right choice, am I in the right place?’ But I’m happy with my decisions, because I know I wouldn’t be the player I am if I didn’t make those choices and play where I played.”