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Player Spotlight

It's All Coming Together for Revs Midfielder Lee Nguyen

The 27-year-old Texas native took an unconventional path to MLS success, including a stop in Vietnam. These days the New England midfielder finds himself in the middle of the league's MVP race.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
September 15, 2014
11:03 AM
IT HAS TAKEN almost a decade, but Lee Nguyen’s talent may finally have caught up to the tremendous potential he flashed as a teenager.

In a 12-month span in 2005-06, all of this happened to a teenage Nguyen: He was named Gatorade national high school player of the year; was the only player yet to turn pro or start college on the U.S. team at the U-20 World Cup; was named Soccer America’s Freshman of the Year after a strong season at Indiana; and signed and debuted with Dutch power PSV Eindhoven.

A native of the Dallas suburb of Plano, Nguyen seemed destined to be a regular with the U.S. national team, making three appearances for Bob Bradley in 2007—though he did little in them to suggest he warranted more.

And then, the whirlwind stalled.

He was never called back to the national team. He made just two first-team appearances at PSV and by 2008 he was sent to Danish side Randers. After that he spent two seasons playing in his parents’ native Vietnam before returning to the United States to little fanfare in 2012.

“I think it all had to kind of come together for (Nguyen). He always had the talent—he just had to put it together,” Revolution coach Jay Heaps said. “It’s really a difficult transition, what he did."

"When you leave the college confines and play in certain environments, it’s difficult to adjust, not only on the field, where it can be the first time you’ve ever been challenged the way you are when you go to a pro team, especially in Europe, not only that but the lifestyle. It’s a completely different world and the transitions are difficult. Sometimes it takes time and being in the right place.”

Nguyen's first two seasons with the New England Revolution were solid but this season he has broken out in a big way, flashing that same talent that once had him on the fast track. Playing as an attacking midfielder, Nguyen has 13 goals—sixth best in MLS—and four assists. More importantly, he has the dynamic Revolution playing an entertaining brand of attacking soccer that has it poised to make consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since Steve Nicol’s heyday with the club.

He has emerged as a Major League Soccer MVP candidate for the surging Revolution, which won its fifth straight match on Saturday. During the win over Montreal, Nguyen scored a delightful—and typical—goal, which you can see below.

Nguyen, 27, says his circuitous path to New England contributed greatly to his current success.

“It was definitely a little unorthodox to get where I am now but I don’t regret it," Nguyen told American Soccer Now. "I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for those learning experiences. They helped me become the player I am now.

“I think every stop, every experience along the way has made me a better player. From PSV, where I was learning from world class players like (Jefferson) Farfan and (Philip) Cocu, to Denmark and learning a new formation there...to Vietnam, where it was a similar situation to what I’m playing now.”

The Vietnamese league is not highly regarded in international soccer circles and not many elite players have used it as a springboard. However, Nguyen credits his time there—first with Hoang Anh Gia then with Becamex Binh Duong—for helping prepare him for the role he plays with the Revolution where he is orchestrating the attack from central midfield.

“It was great, it was something where I got more experience, playing every week and that time around I was the focal point of the team and all the eyes were on me and I had to carry the team most of time,” he said. “There was pressure on me and I had to learn how to deal with that.”

Nguyen says he isn’t doing much different this season in terms of his preparation or his approach on the field and credits his stellar form to team chemistry born from the Revolution keeping the core of its team together.

“I’ve been here going on three years now. It’s just being more comfortable playing with the guys, they know where I like the ball, what my tendencies are, and vice versa,” Nguyen said. “They know where to go, where I like to go, where I like the support to be. It’s just getting used to each other. The core group of guys, we’ve been together since I got here, and the chemistry we’re building is really good.”

Added Heaps: “He needed a place to call his own and that’s what you’re seeing, him feeling really comfortable in an environment off the field and on and it dictates him hitting a higher level of ability on the field.”

For several years after former MLS MVP and Revolution stalwart Taylor Twellman had his career ended by concussions, the Revs were a pretty drab team to watch. But after putting together a group of young attackers that includes Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe, Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, and rookies Pat Mullins and Steve Neumann, New England now has as large and dynamic a group of attackers as any team in the league.

“Teams just can’t focus on Lee and that definitely creates some space for him” said Heaps. “Offensively, he has a lot of the No. 10 responsibilities to create and we also want to give him a lot freedom to go where he needs to go to create. We noticed a lot of man-marking on him so sometimes we pull him wide and let him attack or create from there.”

With all the skilled, finesse players Heaps had put together, the Revolution still had a hole in its lineup between the back line and Nguyen. But the club filled it in a big way last month when it acquired U.S. World Cup veteran Jermaine Jones to play the holding midfield role.

“I love him," Nguyen said. "His first day of training we had this small scrimmage, 9-on-9 between the 18s. One of our stronger players, Dimitry Imbongo, knocks me down. Then you see Jermaine come in and knock him to ground. No one ever knocks Dimitry down, but Jermaine made it look easy. Imbongo, he’s a beast. He doesn’t get bullied much in training. That was the first time I’d seen someone knock Dimitry off the ball like that. I was like, ‘Wow.'"

“He’s exactly the type of player we needed with that grit and muscle in midfield,” Nguyen added. “Obviously I saw a lot of him in the World Cup and the national team and I knew what we were going to get with Jermaine, but now you see everything he does for a team.

"He plugs the gap but gets on the ball and takes pressure off the person on the ball. He can distribute, play short combinations but spread the field as well. He’s big for us to push for the playoffs and a championship.”

And that playoff push, Nguyen believes, is key to one of his next goals: making a return to the U.S. national team.

“You look at Kansas City, those guys did well in the playoffs, went far, got called up,” Nguyen said, referencing Matt Besler and Graham Zusi. “You have to do well with your club and be one of the main guys on your club and push that team and help it go far. If we make the kind of run we’re capable of, I think I’ll get a chance.”

As fate would have it, the U.S. national team’s next game will be played about 100 miles down Interstate 90 from Foxboro, Mass., as Jurgen Klinsmann's men host Ecuador in East Hartford, Conn. Despite its proximity to his home stadium, Nguyen isn’t anticipating a call-up for the October 10 friendly.

“I suppose there’s a chance," Nguyen said, "but that’s Landon Donovan's send-off—really the main thing for that match should be about him. For me, it’s still important to focus on our six games left in the season. If we make the playoffs and go far then a lot of eyes will be on us.”

Still, Donovan will need some teammates on the field and Nguyen’s attacking style and ability to combine with his teammates fits the “proactive” style Klinsmann has repeatedly advocated.

“I think that if he continues to put performances in like he has this season, he has to be in the (national team) conversation,” said Heaps.

With Jones anchoring the midfield and a dynamic attack quarterbacked by Nguyen, the Revolution have emerged as dark horse to lift MLS Cup. With those expectations come pressure, which Nguyen embraces.

“I believe pressure makes you play better, makes you become a better player. Whether you’re competing for a spot on the field or to beat your opponent or make the playoffs, there’s pressure. How you deal with it, that decides how well you do.

"I welcome it.”

What do you think of Ngyuen's 2014 season? Does he have what it takes to play for the U.S. national team? Share your take below.

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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