Lee Nguyen took his last trip to South America seven and a half years ago. That journey arrived as he made his first steps into the U.S. national team setup in a competitive tournament. U.S. coach Bob Bradley included the promising midfielder in his 23-man squad for the Copa America in Venezuela and took the opportunity to introduce Nguyen to the international scene.
Nguyen featured as a substitute in two of the three group defeats, but he absorbed the atmosphere, noted the burgeoning talents of Lionel Messi and watched the proceedings intently. He gathered all of the information he could in the hopes that he could use it some day to establish himself as a fixture for the national team.
“It was about what it took to play at that level, gaining that experience and trying to soak it in,” Nguyen said after the Americans went through their paces on Monday morning ahead of the friendly against Chile on Wednesday (6:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go).
The next steps did not quite follow according to plan. Instead of building upon those first steps, he slipped out of the national team reckoning. His career continued along a circuitous path through the Netherlands, Denmark and Vietnam before carrying him into MLS three years ago.
After spending those years in the international wilderness, Nguyen forced his way back into the frame last year. He made his return as a substitute and marked his arrival with a clever heel pass in the 2-1 defeat to Colombia on Nov. 14.
Postseason demands inevitably required his immediate return to the Revolution, but the brief sojourn to London provided Nguyen with some grounding for his selection for the January camp earlier this month.
“I got a little acclimated,” Nguyen said. “I came in and saw familiar faces again in this camp. It definitely felt a little more comfortable coming into January knowing most of the guys already.”
The extended look supplied Nguyen with a chance to hone his fitness after a brief offseason and wipe the slate clean ahead of 2015.
By just about every possible measure, Nguyen — a finalist for MLS MVP and the leading scorer among midfielders with 18 goals — submitted his best season as a professional last year. He played an influential role in the Revs’ run to MLS Cup with his tidy work on the ball and his timely runs into dangerous areas. His performances captured the attention of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and ushered him back onto the international scene for the first time since that trek to South America more than seven years ago.
Nguyen’s exploits create opportunities for both club and country as this busy year dawns. There are no certainties, though. He understands he must grasp them firmly with both hands in order to make the best use of them and ward off a potential downturn in form.
“I think it’s important to know it’s a new year,” Nguyen said. “That was 2014. That was last year. Now I have to start fresh again. I have to be consistent. I have to keep pushing to be better. As long as you have that mindset to keep pushing, to improve, to be better, everything will play itself out.”
Those tenets drive Nguyen forward as he strives to entrench himself in the squad. His path toward regular first-team action at the international level remains crowded with established figures and upcoming players ready to pounce on any particular opening.
Nguyen’s desire to fight through the crowd brings him back to this continent once more. His life and his role have changed substantially. He is an experienced professional now, the sort of player expected to contribute immediately and present a viable alternative to the established starters.
After all of these years, those initial steps supply the groundwork for the challenges ahead. It is now down to Nguyen to make sure this excursion forms the foundation for a long-term future with the national team.