When he decided to leave Vietnam more than two years ago, about the only individual accomplishment Lee Nguyen wanted was a recall to the U.S. national team. His sparkling play this season for New England earned him a few minutes in a friendly against Colombia last month, after which he got back to the business of winning an MLS title.
"He’s kind of rising with us," says head coach Jay Heaps, who took the job a few months before nabbing Nguyen off waivers in 2002. "I think that shows his commitment to a project and a commitment to helping this team get back to where it can be."
Nguyen's searing runs and sharp touches and 18 goals were key elements of New England’s second-place finish in the Eastern Conference, and by knocking off Columbus and New York the Revs have returned to the title game for the first time since 2007, which is also the year Nguyen debuted for the USA. Then he dropped out of the spotlight and became a character in the “Whatever Happened To?” ongoing saga of American players overseas.
A pair of appearances for the USA at the 2005 U-20 World Cup and an excellent freshman season at Indiana (five goals, 12 assists, Soccer America Freshman of the Year honors) in 2005 whetted his appetite for adventure. He left for PSV Eindhoven in January 2006 and aside from a national team debut against China and two Copa America matches in 2007, faded from the scene domestically.
“Was my choice to stay and live an easy life and be content, or decide to challenge myself and come to MLS and take a big risk?,” he says of leaving a rock-star existence in Vietnam, where he’d landed after unsuccessful stints in Holland and Denmark.
“That’s exactly where I was. It’s funny, because when I was in Denmark I had to make a decision. I was at a crossroads right there and I had to decide which path to take. I chose Vietnam and played there a couple of years and then in my mind, it was like, ‘Is this it? Are you happy, are you content? Is this where you want to be for the rest of your career?’ Or do you want to challenge yourself and do you think you have more to give?’”
Heaps would ask many of the same questions when he claimed Nguyen in the Waiver Draft after Vancouver, which had won a weighted lottery for Nguyen’s rights, decided to cut him loose during the 2012 preseason. Just a few months before, Heaps -- as a rookie head coach -- had taken over a team that won only five games in 2011.
“He joined Vancouver in a weighted lottery and we participated in that, but they ended up waiving him,” recalls Heaps. “We grabbed him right away, but at the same time, the Revs had never taken anyone off waivers. It was one of my first moves after the college draft, to sign a player out of the waiver draft. I had followed Lee during his college career and I knew he was a talent.”
Heaps and Nguyen went through growing pains together as the Revs re-tooled. They won nine games in 2012 -- Nguyen was second on the team with five goals -- and last year recorded 14 victories and finished third as he registered four goals and seven assists. This year, the Revs took another jump forward and Nguyen went into orbit.
Buttressed by a four-man back line and twin central midfielders in Scott Caldwell and Jermaine Jones, Nguyen orchestrates a freewheeling attack that zips the ball on and off the feet of forward Charlie Davies and wide men Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury. In four playoff games, the Revs have scored 11 goals. Davies leads the way with four goals, but eight other players have at least one goal or assist. Nguyen has scored twice and assisted thrice.
“I was on board from the very beginning with the style he wanted to play and how he implemented it,” says Nguyen. “It totally fits into my game. Jay’s been great and coming into the league at the same time as him, you get to grow with him. I’ve been fortunate enough to be alongside of him since the beginning and to go through this whole rebuilding process.”
Nguyen spent part of his youth building up his body. His great balance, clean footwork, lower-body strength and speed off the mark stems in part from karate and judo training as a youngster. Martial-arts disciplines teach many of the same techniques necessary for smaller soccer players to survive against bigger ones and at 5-foot-8, 150 pounds, Nguyen is a classic case of a player strong for his size who can withstand punishment, yet quick enough to avoid it.
“I want to credit that,” he says of classes he took starting at 5 and continuing for about seven years. “My parents [Michelle and Pham] put me in that and it teaches you balance, and how to toughen your core, and I was able to bring that into soccer.
“Taking judo and karate teaches you how to fall when you knocked off the ball or going in for challenges, to be able to take care of your body when you’re in the air, being able to withstand those big tackles. It did have a big effect on my soccer career.”
The zenith of that career lies ahead. At 28, he will have several more productive years for the Revs and the USA, should head coach Jurgen Klinsmann factor him into long-term plans. New England stands on the brink of returning to the elite status is attained by playing in four MLS Cups from 2002 to 2007.
If he’s not the idol he was in Vietnam, where fans mobbed him in the streets and teenage girls chanted his name, he’s carving out a different legacy in New England and MLS. (For what it’s worth, in 2012 he was named to the Boston Globe Magazine’s list of “25 Most Stylish Bostonians, and his face adorns a few of the flags, placards and tifos to be seen at Revs home games.)
“The crazy thing about football is -- timing has a lot to do with it and experience -- but you need to go through it as a footballer,” he says. “I don’t know anybody who had it easy all the way through their career. Everybody has ups and downs. You go through it and you learn from it.
“I came to a good situation [in Holland], Guus Hiddink was there, and it was just unfortunate that he left because I would have played a lot more and got a lot more experience. But a new coach comes in and he favors different players and that’s just how football works.”