Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
When Lee Nguyen made the decision to leave the Vietnamese league and join MLS prior to the 2012 season, he did so with one goal in mind: prove to everyone that he is capable of playing in the league.
With that now crossed off his to-do list, Nguyen has set his sights on accomplishing more this year. A lot more.
Currently in the midst of his second season with the New England Revolution, Nguyen is not interested in resting on his laurels from an impressive first year in MLS. In fact, he has some lofty goals he would like to accomplish in the coming months.
Near the top of his agenda? Earning a call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team, a realistic possibility considering that a Gold Cup will be played in July, and the desire of U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to summon players who are in season and in a “rhythm”.
“I haven’t been in touch with anyone from U.S. Soccer yet but it’s always a goal to try and get a call-up from the national team,” Nguyen told SBI. “Whether it’s in the Gold Cup or not, it would be great to get called up and I think I’m just starting (to get) in form and it would be a great tournament to showcase. But at the same time I just have to keep playing with New England and help them win games and hopefully just wait for a call-up and if I get a call-up, I’ll be ready.”
It has been a long time since Nguyen last donned a U.S. jersey (the 2007 Copa America, to be exact) and a lot has happened to him since his last international cap. The 26-year-old has literally played all over the world, moving from Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven to Randers FC in Denmark to a pair of clubs in the relatively unknown V-League before signing with MLS.
Needless to say, few players can relate to the the wild road Nguyen has taken in his career but he believes the unpredictable nature of it all has helped him prosper as a player.
“I had a great time and I was very fortunate to play under some great coaches and learned a lot from a lot of great players as well,” said Nguyen. “I was fortunate enough to play under some top players who mentored me, like (Phillip) Cocu and (Jefferson) Farfan, and just being able to be in that environment and train with them every day and see them play, you learn so much from them on and off the field.
“I was able to take that experience and carry it on and that’s something I’m very grateful for and very fortunate to be part of because it molded me into the player I am now.”
The player Nguyen is now is a technical midfielder who possesses deceptive speed, good dribbling skills and an ability to create. In 2012, Nguyen had five goals and two assists in 30 games for a poor Revolution team and was largely considered one of the revelations of the MLS season.
Nguyen has continued to prove an offensive threat this year with a goal and an assist in 10 games but the Revolution’s attacking woes have persisted, as they have found the back of the net a measly six times.
That lack of offensive output, however, is not changing New England head coach Jay Heaps’ mind about what he wants to see from the crafty Nguyen.
“We’ve asked him to take a bigger role,” Heaps told SBI. “He’s someone who was good for us last year and he’s someone who we’re going to lean on because he can change the game at any moment. He’s good with the ball and make plays and I’m just trying to get the right combination of players around him.”
Heaps may be counting on Nguyen to be one of the focal points for the Revolution’s attack but that should be no problem for the midfielder. After all, Nguyen was essentially treated like a rock star during his playing days in Vietnam.
From being stopped in the streets for photos and autographs to being followed by the paparazzi, he lived a life in Vietnam that might compare to David Beckham or Justin Bieber’s in the United States. Nguyen was one of, if not, the highest-paid athletes in the country at the time and his face was plastered on everything from gossip magazines to newspapers to entertainment shows.
He was a celebrity.
“First it was overwhelming because I really had no idea of how big I was over there at the time and when I stepped down, my first game, it was just crazy and the (support) from the fans was amazing,” said Nguyen, who is of Vietnamese descent. “The whole country itself, they all were very supportive of me coming back there and playing, which was awesome to see how supportive everybody was. Whether they were soccer fans or not, they all knew who I was, which was like the most craziest thing, but I enjoyed it.”
As for the level of soccer played there, Nguyen believes it is not as bad as most would think.
“They’re pretty good and they could play in MLS as well,” said Nguyen. “It’s probably not as physical as MLS but technically they’re right up there with the rest of the world. It’s more of a South American style and you play on the thicker grass and the game might be a bit slower because of that but the game was flowing just like it was in Europe and maybe just because of that, in terms of players, it wasn’t that far off.
“It’s just different styles of play. I was in Holland and then Denmark transcended into a different style and then Vietnam was a different style as well. It was great to be a part of those different cultures and learn the styles of play. It helped me out here, being able to adjust so quickly.”
There is no denying that Nguyen has found success in MLS, but his transition into the league was not as smooth as he would have liked. Initially selected by the Vancouver Whitecaps, Nguyen caused quite a stir in American and Canadian soccer circles with a homophobic tweet to a teammate. Nguyen later apologized for his comment (he now believes he is a better person for having to go through that), but that was not the end of his negative incidences during his stint in Vancouver.
Approximately three months after signing with the Whitecaps in preseason, the club released him before the start of the 2012 campaign. That opened the door for Heaps, who has been familiar with Nguyen since his days at Indiana University, to bring him on board with the Revolution.
“You’re going to be loved and you’re going to be hated by certain coaches,” said Nguyen of his time in Vancouver. “My style of play is probably not going to fit with some coaches and it obviously didn’t fit with Vancouver’s [Martin Rennie] and it just didn’t work out. I wasn’t able to get any games in so I wasn’t happy there and luckily they let me go and then Jay picked me up and it’s been working out well now.”
So much so that Nguyen could potentially make his international return this summer in the Gold Cup, a tournament that could instill even more confidence in Ngueyn and also help him cross something else off his to-do list.
“I think he’s flirting with it and I think that’s the ultimate goal: to get yourself to a position where you’re on the national team of the country you come from,” said Heaps. “Lee definitely has the potential to get there, no question about it, and … when guys get in a rhythm, I think teams have to also be winning and playing well and I think that’s important. If we start winning games and Lee’s playing well then he’s definitely got to be someone that’s looked upon.”