When fans and media members alike think of Lee Nguyen, odds are they envision the New England Revolution’s star playmaker dribbling at the opposition’s defense and slicing it open with a pinpoint pass. In fact, that exact scenario played out in the New England Revolution’s 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo on August 15.
With a narrow 1-0 lead in tact as the match’s waning moments approached, Nguyen picked up a loose ball near midfield. He then gracefully skipped past a sliding defender, picked out Juan Agudelo through the tightest of angles, and allowed the striker to slot him the Revs’ second goal of the evening.
Such a situation has become a regular occurrence that many who follow the Revs are numb to the brilliance of Nguyen’s aforementioned play, and understandably so. The McKinney, Texas native is among the league’s best attacking midfielders, involved with the national team, and, along with Jermaine Jones, is arguably the face of the Massachusetts-based franchise.
However, Nguyen’s path to all of those heights isn’t as straightforward as one might expect.
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After starring in his freshman season at Indiana University, the now 28-year-old midfielder had an offer surface that he couldn’t resist. PSV Eindhoven, who is a traditional powerhouse in the Dutch Eredivisie, came calling in 2006.
Nguyen, who first realized the idea of playing professionally was a serious possibility during his senior year of high school, recognized that what was on the table was something that couldn’t be passed up. The allure of Europe was there for the taking.
“It was always a dream to go play at a big club in Europe like PSV, but when you get an opportunity like that you don’t want to have the what-if’s,” Nguyen recently said to The Bent Musket.
“WHEN HE’S PLAYING AT HIS BEST, I THINK THAT’S WHEN WE’RE PLAYING AT OUR BEST” – DAVIES
During his time there, Nguyen struggled to become a consistent part of the first team, but it offered experiences that a fledgling player couldn’t turn down. He was training every day with world-class players, learning what it meant to be a professional, and working his way towards his first call-up to the U.S. National Team, which came in 2007.
“It was a great experience,” Nguyen said. “I was able to learn a lot from some world class players like [Philip] Cocu, [Ibrahim] Afellay, [Jefferson] Farfan, and [Damarcus] Beasley. Also, I just had them there to take me under their wings and show me the ropes.”
Nonetheless, Nguyen’s time with PSV came to an end in 2008 when he moved to Randers FC of the Danish Superliga in search of more playing time. While there, the blossoming Nguyen made 22 appearances and quickly drew interest from a place few picture when the world of professional soccer enters their mind.
Vietnam, which Nguyen has deep family roots to, came calling in the form of Hoang Anh Gia Lia FC. The member of the Vietnamese Super League made every effort to sign him in 2009 and provided him with a platform to bring his career to new heights. He did exactly that while there, but it more importantly provided Nguyen with an experience that was refreshing, challenging, and enjoyable all at the same time.
“It was great in Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “The team showed a lot of willingness to try and get me over there and build a team around me. They did the whole shenanigans to woo me, and it worked. As a player that’s what you want – you want to be wanted. They showed that and were willing to do whatever to get me over there. I enjoyed my time there and it was a great experience on and off the field.”
Moreover, Nguyen, who also enjoyed a stint with Becamex Binh Duong FC of the Vietnamese Super League in 2010 and 2011, was continuing his transcontinental adventure. It exposed him to lucrative contracts, a lifestyle that sometimes resembled that of a celebrity, and a world he hadn’t quite seen before.
“It was a little bit of a culture shock at first going over there, but for me I enjoyed it and got to embrace it,” Nguyen said. “At the same time the fans over there were tremendous. Soccer is so big over there, so being able to see that side of it was pretty cool.”
Despite all of the whirlwind experiences, the thing Nguyen craved the most in his career was absent: Time with the national team. Enter Major League Soccer.
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Nguyen, who recently earned caps against Colombia, Chile, and Panama, wanted to return to the national team fold. Jurgen Klinsmann, who was hired to manage the U.S. team in 2011, was emphasizing technique and skill over physicality, and Nguyen fit that mold.
To reignite the embers of his national team career and to catch the eye of Klinsmann, Nguyen’s next stop in his career was relatively straightforward. He returned home to MLS.
This Nguyen strike was one of his 18 regular season goals in 2014, and arguably his best.
“Really for me I wanted to try and get back in the national team picture,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could play at this level and that was really it.”
But even the jump back to MLS was filled with ups and downs. He was originally allocated to the Vancouver Whitecaps, but things didn’t quite work out there. Following the end of their 2012 preseason, then-coach Martin Renniereleased Nguyen and he was without a team.
Luckily for Nguyen, he didn’t have to wait too long to find his next destination, and it was one that was full of prosperity that few could have predicted. The Revs pounced on the chance to sign Nguyen with the second overall pick in the 2012 MLS Waiver Draft, marking the first time the club ever acquired a player through such a mechanism.
For Jay Heaps and others, there was hope at the time that Nguyen could develop into a productive player, never mind the player Revs fans know and love today.
As of writing, Nguyen has 32 goals and 19 assists throughout his time in New England, and was a MVP candidate in 2014. He’s enjoying his soccer every day, taking care of business on the field, and leading his team to new heights.
“I feel like I’m in my best position and I’m just grateful that Jay was able to find our formation and get me into a system,” Nguyen said. “It helps me out to play towards my strengths. This team that we have now that he’s built towards the last four years is one of the greatest that I feel the Revs have had in a while. We can really make a push for the finals again.”
Even Nguyen’s teammates are cognizant of how special of a player he has become. While not solely dependent on his performances on and off the ball, the Revs simply thrive when Nguyen is in his groove. When he is tracking back to jump start the attack, setting up teammates in attacking positions, and knocking the ball around in possession, the Revs are a better team
“I WOULDN’T BE HERE WITHOUT THOSE GUYS AROUND ME AND I’M JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE” – NGUYEN
“For me, Lee is extremely important, as well as for the team,” Charlie Daviesrecently told The Bent Musket. “He’s one of the most talented midfielders in the league and he is fit and playing at his best and playing both sides of the ball, which not many number 10’s can do as well as he does.
“He’s really worked on helping us defensively – creating turnovers and then being able to get all the way up top and create goals and score goals. That makes us so much more dynamic and when he’s playing at his best, I think that’s when we’re playing at our best.”
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As Nguyen has grown by leaps and bounds, he has established himself as one of the better attacking midfielders in MLS. He’s fulfilled his goal of returning to the national team and values the experiences Klinsmann has provided him with.
He hopes to return to Klinsmann’s squad in the near future, and is confident that through rich form with the Revs he can once again represent his country.
“The way he runs training and his philosophies and everything are really amazing to see,” Nguyen said. “You learn a lot not only playing, but off the field you learn a lot, too. For me it was more experience I could get and hopefully if I do well I can get more international experience.”
Whether or not he returns there remains to be seen, but Nguyen’s current state as a professional is the manifestation of a unique journey.
Through stops in Holland, Denmark, Vietnam, and America, Nguyen has been able to reach to the point he is at today and far exceed expectations that preceded his return to the U.S.
He is a hallmark player in an ever-growing league who is aware that every step along the way molded him into the player he is today. He’s a mature player who is leading a franchise and is showing few signs of slowing down or digressing any time soon.
There’s responsibility that inherently comes with all of that, but, if anything, he embraces it with open arms.
“It’s a big responsibility and for me I welcome it,” Nguyen said. “At the same time we have great players around us who can push this team going forward. For me, I wouldn’t be here without those guys around me as well and I’m just happy to be here [in New England].”