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New England’s star MF Lee Nguyens records an assist in 2-1 win over NY in MLS Playoffs

Lee Nguyen knows how it feels to be treated like a rock star.

More than 40 years after his family left Vietnam and settled in Texas, where Nguyen was born, and after side trips to college and Europe, he found himself playing soccer in Vietnam’s top division in 2009.

“From the moment I touched down, people were everywhere,” Nguyen, now a star midfielder for the MLS’s New England Revolution, said of his arrival to play for Hoang Anh Gia Lai in Pleiku, in central Vietnam. “I knew I was popular in Vietnam, having been the first player with a Vietnamese background to play in Europe, but the fans were just crazy.”

Fans are still cheering his name, only now he is back home in the United States.

Nguyen led New England to a 2-1 victory in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals against the Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey. The return match in the two-game, total-goals series is scheduled for Saturday in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The winner will advance to play the Los Angeles Galaxy or the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup on Dec. 7.

New England is still playing in November largely because of the contributions of the compact Nguyen (5 feet 8 inches, 150 pounds), who has developed into one of the league’s most dangerous attackers in his third season. Nguyen scored 18 goals and had five assists in the regular season for New England.

His season completed a circle that began about a decade ago when he left Richardson, Texas, where he had been named the national high school player of the year, for Indiana University. Nguyen went on to win the NCAA’s freshman of the year award in 2005.

After one season in college, Nguyen signed with the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven at age 19. Like many American players abroad, he struggled with his first team. Frustrated, he moved to Randers, Denmark, for a spell before landing in a TMZ-like vortex in Vietnam, where gossip magazines chronicled his every move.

It was fun, Nguyen said, and flattering. But after two years and two clubs, he returned home to sign with MLS.

The Revolution team, on which he is the unquestioned star, was built slowly by adding Jose Goncalves, Charlie Davies and Teal Bunbury and by drafting A.J. Soares, Kelyn Rowe and Andrew Farrell. The team blossomed over the summer when Jermaine Jones, 33, one of the United States national team’s German-American standouts, joined in late August.

“Since Jermaine Jones arrived, he changed the team, period,” the Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry said in a conference call Thursday. “He allowed everyone to go forward. He’s more the guy who’s going to stop the play. He’s the guy who will get into you. It’s not easy to come and change a team just because you played in Europe. The guy came with the right attitude, and you can see that in every single game they play.”

In other words, Jones is the hard man, the enforcer, in the middle of the Revolution’s formation.

With Jones on the field, the Revolution ended an eight-game losing streak that lasted from May 31 to July 26; they closed the season with a 9-1-2 record over their final 12 games. Jones has also given Nguyen, and the rest of the New England players, a sense of security and a strong presence in the locker room.

“He’s the type of player I’ve been wanting to play alongside for two years now,” Nguyen said. “He brings everything you want a No. 8 to bring. His muscle and his grind in midfield. We knew he would be a tough player to play against in the middle, getting into tackles. It’s what we needed. But we all were a little bit surprised because he has a really good technical ability and can spray passes that helps stretch out the game.”

Nguyen’s quickness, vision, skill on the ball and nose for the goal have put him on a short list of candidates for the league’s MVP award alongside the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane and the Sounders’ Obafemi Martins.

(Left off the list was the Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips, who tied the league’s single-season goal-scoring record with 27. The omission brought an unsurprising response from Red Bulls coach Mike Petke: “I’m shocked.”)

“I’m definitely honored and excited to be there at the same time with two big names who’ve had great careers,” Nguyen said. “It also goes to the fact that I wouldn’t be where I am without my teammates and how well we’re doing this season.”

Others have noticed as well. Nguyen, who made his debut with the national team as a substitute against China in June 2007, was called in by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann last week for a friendly against Colombia in London. On Nov. 14, in his first national team appearance in seven years, Nguyen was again a late substitute, but he drew notice by injecting daring and speed into the American attack.

Nguyen is 28, so this World Cup cycle will most likely be his last chance to have an impact internationally.

“It was a great feeling when I got the call from Jurgen inviting me to camp,” Nguyen said. “It kind of put everything back in perspective. I took a big chance coming back home. The bigger goal was to prove myself and get back on the radar.”

He is clearly there; he expects to join the U.S. team for another training camp in January, after the playoffs.

via New England’s star MF completes global circle;.


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