In modern parlance, Lee Nguyen is trending in the right direction.
By his own admission, the Revs midfielder is atoning for a lackluster showing a year ago during the training camp and friendlies that traditionally kick off the calendar for the U.S. national team. On Sunday, he played a crisp and efficient 90 minutes as the Americans twice rallied from deficits to beat Iceland, 3-2.
Without showing up on the scoresheet with a goal or assist, Nguyen opened up space and delivered sharp, accurate passes in the attacking third. He drew praise from head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and teammates for not just a solid game, but maintaining a high level of performance throughout the three weeks of training sessions prior to kickoff at StubHub Center. Klinsmann proclaimed him as "one of the winners" of the proceedings.
“For me, it was just a matter of coming into the camp with the right mindset and being physically prepared for the next month of preseason here,” says Nguyen, who showed up in January of 2015 still ouchy from a groin strain and extreme fatigue less than a month after playing in an MLS Cup final won by the Galaxy, 2-1, in overtime.
“Last year I was nursing an injury all through the playoffs and the final,” he says. “At the end of the year, I was just trying to rest my groin so I could get healthy before [national team camp].”
In November 2014, following an outstanding regular season for New England -- 18 goals, 5 assists, MVP finalist -- Nguyen had returned to the national team to play a friendly against Colombia in London. The honor -- which was a shock, his first callup since 2007 -- came at a cost: additional travel and fatigue during an already stressful playoff run that didn’t end until the first week of December.
Nguyen struggled through the first camp of 2015 and didn’t show much a year ago as a second-half sub against Chile and Panama. He made just one more 2015 appearance, as a late entry in a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica Oct. 13 that followed a 3-2 Concacaf Cup defeat against Mexico.
The MLS season ended for the Revs two and a half weeks later on Halloween with a Knockout-Round loss to D.C. United, which left Nguyen deeply disappointed yet with plenty of time to get ready for 2016. Rather than rushing to get fit, the goals were stay healthy and once recovered, get back to work.
“My main goal was to try and maintain my fitness that I had throughout the end of the season, try not to lose too much, and at the same time give my body enough time to get the rest it needed to ramp up again,” he says. “This time around I was just trying to stay healthy before camp started.”
He was one of the players sent an offseason conditioning program by the U.S. training staff, so obviously Klinsmann’s interest hadn’t waned. His game is laced with skill and guile, yet Klinsmann also values intensity and workrate, attributes Nguyen has honed and enhanced since leaving Vietnam to sign an MLS contract four years ago.
“Lee, right away he was one of my core guys,” says Revs head coach Jay Heaps, who grabbed Nguyen off waivers in early March, 2012, after he’d been auditioned and cast off by Vancouver. “That was for his ability, but also his understanding of the game and how I wanted to play and how he could be a part of that. He works hard both sides of the ball but for me, the harder he works, the better places he gets into. He’s got some of the best feet I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around a lot of good players.”
Nguyen, 29, has been surrounded by good players at this U.S. training camp, run by Klinsmann and U-23 coach Andi Herzog as a hybrid of squads. Like all the players, he’s taken note of a less rigorous yet still demanding program set up by the coaching staff. Double-days lasted little more than a week and no longer are players required to dine together in the evening.
For the past two weeks on most days, they’ve trained once in the morning, eaten lunch, and unless there’s a meeting or another team activity scheduled, roamed free.
“He basically said he wants it to be a relaxed camp and he wasn’t going to hold that many sessions but when you come in, to put in the work,” says Nguyen. “That’s a little bit different than last year, when sometimes we’d have two trainings and wouldn’t get off the field until later in the afternoon.”
The mix of veterans and younger player gearing up for the Olympic playoff against Colombia in March is another factor in the camp’s lighter mood. Though every player except for German-based Jerome Kiesewetter played in MLS last year, Nguyen points out many of them have rarely played together or against each other with their clubs.
“The young guys are very athletic and very fearless,” says Nguyen, who laughed when reminded he was even younger (20) when he debuted against China in 2007 and soon vanished for more than seven years. “You don’t get to see them much because they’re on another club and you don’t get to play against them that much if they’re in a different conference, but training with them every day you see the quality that they bring. I was very impressed with all of them.
“They’ve got Olympic qualifying coming up and they have to get prepared for that. For me, the level has been great. The young guys have their goal, the Olympic [playoffs], and the older guys, we’re getting ready for World Cup qualifying and the Copa America.”
After the game against Canada Friday, Nguyen returns to the Revs’ training camp greatly changed. Getting back onto the national team played a role in his decision to leave Vietnam – where he rode a rock-star whirlwind of goals and daring hairdos and adoring fans -- and find a path into a U.S. jersey. Heaps is pleased to see the plan playing out.
“Lee and I have had a lot of conversations,” says Heaps, who had originally tried to get Nguyen in a weighted lottery and jumped at a second chance when he was waived. “I think a lot of times it’s about how his game is going and how to break into the national team. Lee’s very determined. He realized that he’s been playing well for us, he wants another season to be a good one, and I think he was really mentally in a good place in terms of what he could do.”