The Long, Strange Trip of Vietnamese-American soccer star Lee Nguyen
When you play soccer, sometimes you take the field in the rain and wind. When you graduate from college soccer to the professional ranks, sometimes you have to adjust to getting traded and playing somewhere else. Sometimes you have to adjust to doing that a lot.
Lee Nguyen, currently playing in the midfield for the New England Revolution, didn’t mention that he’d also trained with Arsenal in England’s Premiership when I spoke to him after a recent practice in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Maybe he didn’t want to sound as if he was bragging. He didn’t mention that he’d come to Major League Soccer in December as a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps, either. Maybe he’d forgotten. Six teams on three continents over the course of less than six years is a lot to remember.“Uh, played at Indiana University, and went to Holland after that for PSV,” Nguyen said. “Then I went to Denmark for Randers, then I went to Vietnam and played for Haoang Anh, and my second club was Binh Duong.”
Born in Texas to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen is a citizen of both the U.S. and Vietnam, which is part of what drew him to embrace the opportunity to play in the latter country. In Vietnam, which has rarely sent players to Europe, Lee Nguyen not only made more money than Major League Soccer was willing to pay him, he was a celebrity, pestered for autographs.
“Yeah, it was a little overwhelming at first, going out in public, people recognizing your face, knowing who you are,” he said. “It’s a lot different from here, now, so I like it here. You get your time, your peace and your privacy, so it’s nice… more focus on the game.”
Nguyen’s focus on the game has been exemplary. On April 14, he battled through a game while suffering with the flu and a high fever. On May 12, he scored two goals and added an assist as the Revs beat the Whitecaps, the team that had waived Lee before the season began. He was named MLS Player of the Week. His effort has New England Revolution head coach Jay Heaps hoping the midfielder’s traveling days are over.
“Yeah, we don’t want him going anywhere, how’s that?” Heaps said. “He can stay here for a while. No, he’s traveled a lot. I think coming back to MLS is the right place for him, and the right time. He’s got a lot of his career left, and I think he’s only getting better. I think in the environment we have him in, he’s only getting better.”
Heaps first became aware of Nguyen during the one year Nguyen spent at Indiana University, and he’s delighted with the way international experience has enabled the midfielder to increase his value. When asked what particularly impresses him, Heaps leans toward Lee Nguyen’s offensive potential.
“Well, I’d say it’s his touch,” Heaps said. “It’s his ability to freeze a player, then take advantage of that, that little gap in space, but it’s also, one of the things that we’re striving on him is that he’s a two way player. We need to make him be able to defend, and I like that he’s committed to that.”
Nguyen, who made a couple of appearances as a member of the U.S. National Team before taking his career to Vietnam, hopes that Jurgen Klinsmann and the other coaches for that team have noticed that he’s back. He feels he’ll be doing his part in promoting MLS if he’s offered another opportunity to play for the U.S.
“Yeah, I think, you know, a lot of kids growing up, they’re gonna see players like me who came back from Europe and now they’re trying to make a stamp here, and the more players you see from the U.S. getting called to the national team, that’s encouragement to kids that they can play here and still get called in.” Would repeating as MLS Player of the Week help raise his profile? Nguyen said, “Yeah, it helps get my name out there, and I just gotta keep doing that, keep having consistent games like those will help, so…”
So…you might want to keep an eye on this particular soccer vagabond who feels like he’s home, since now his family and friends are only a couple of time zones away, rather than on the other side of the world.