Vietnam is not the place where Lee Nguyen wanted to end his career, even though he was treated like a celebrity when playing in the country’s top-tier football (soccer) league, the Major League Soccer (MLS) Player of the Month revealed last week.
The New England Revolution midfielder is in the spotlight not only in the U.S. but also in Vietnam, where people are puzzling over why his three seasons in the V-League did not end with flying colors.
And the 28-year-old Texas-born player on Friday gave some hints to speculators in the Southeast Asian country by telling the Boston Globewhy he returned to the U.S. from a country where he was “a fan idol with a fat contract.”
“It was definitely eye-opening for me,” he was quoted by the daily as saying of the experience he got with V-League side Hoang Anh Gia Lai, to which he moved from Danish Superliga side Randers on January 18, 2009.
Nguyen, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Vietnam, said even though he had played for European clubs and had fans, there was nowhere to compare to Vietnam, where he was “getting paparazzis everywhere and getting invitations to red-carpet events.”
He however admitted that he “definitely enjoyed” the experience.
“That’s why it was difficult to leave.”
Nguyen had 24 appearances in all competitions with Hoang Anh Gia Lai in 2009, scoring 13 goals and adding 16 assists, according to his profile on the MLS website.
He was paid US$10,000 a month, excluding bonuses, by the Vietnamese club, according to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper sources.
His guaranteed compensation at New England Revolution was more than $80,000 in 2013, and $193,750 for the 2014 season, according toThe Bent Musket, an online community of the club.
But apart from the hefty compensation, the reason Nguyen signed a three-year contract with Hoang Anh Gia Lai was that he had no hope of being called for the U.S. national team by the then head coach, Bob Bradley, according to the Boston Globe.
He would still be playing in Vietnam if Bradley had remained the U.S. head coach after the 2010 World Cup. But as Jurgen Klinsmann took over in July 2011, Nguyen decided that it was time “to return to the States and make his case,” the daily said.
“If I stayed [in Vietnam], this was where my career was going to be and I was going to have to play the rest of it out, and I don’t think I was ready for that,” he told the Boston Globe.
“I wanted to keep challenging myself and I felt like I still had a lot more to prove in my game and I wanted to prove people wrong.”
Nguyen signed with MLS at the end of 2011 and, after only three seasons, developed into what the Boston Globe described as “a most dangerous hybrid, an orchestrator/terminator who can finish what he sets in motion.”
Nguyen was among the top four scorers in the MLS this season with 18 goals, including nine game winners, and garnered the Etihad Airways MLS Player of the Month award for October, according to the MLS website.
“You’ve got to make it count,” he told the Boston daily.
“For me it’s always, in pressure situations, can you make it count? That’s the most important thing for a player.”
Leaving his past as an unsuccessful superstar in Vietnam behind, Lee Nguyen is now a real hero in the MLS, and just the icing on the cake, he has been picked up for the U.S. national team to play in two friendlies against Colombia and Ireland this month.