Under an ominous arc of New England sky, one man wore a bright pink bib. Lee Nguyen was on neither team and on both teams. He was the playmaker for whichever side had the ball. He was the creator threatening both goals, pushing delicate passes into spaces that didn’t exist until he pried them open like a practiced oysterman with a stubborn shell. He zipped over the green plastic grass, a bright light against gunmetal gray.
“I try to cause havoc between midfield and defence,” Nguyen (pronounced Win) told FIFA.com after training with Major League Soccer side New England Revolution in the dying days of winter. “I like to find those spaces, those pockets. Sometimes they’re tiny, but it’s my job to unlock them. I feel most at home doing it.”
The Revs schemer speaks slowly, the faint edges of a drawl evidence of a childhood spent in Texas. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen showed early flashes for the finer side of the game. He moved as if in a bubble, tightrope walking the invisible lines behind the strikers. He finds the angles no one sees. From an early age, he did things his own way, like artists do.
Early Messi sighting
Still in secondary school, in 2005, Nguyen travelled to the Netherlands for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. “Everyone was hearing the name [Lionel] Messi,” he recalled of seeing the Argentina star, arguably the greatest player of all time, take his first steps on the world stage in USA’s opener. “He took the ball from the edge of his own penalty area and dribbled all the way up the field and almost scored. We were like: 'Whoa. What was that?'”
While Messi took his well-documented path to the stratosphere, young Nguyen went off on his own way. He signed with PSV Eindhoven and spent three years trying, without success, to break into the first team. He refined his supple skills in those Netherlands, where technique is king, before making the kind of move that sounds like professional suicide. He went to Vietnam, way off the traditional radar.
“I got a lot of attention there,” he said of his two seasons with Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC and Becamex Binh Duong FC in the Vietnamese top-flight. He was treated like an idol. The first American to play in Vietnam, he couldn’t walk the streets without being hounded for photos and autographs. He was a pop star in the land of his parents.
“It was a domino effect with the fans,” he said, laughing at the fuss. “One person saw you at a mall and then more and more people rushed over. Before you knew it, you couldn’t move!”
In the stifling heat and humidity of southeast Asia, Nguyen added a new layer to his game. “You learn quick there that possession is the key,” said Nguyen, who speaks fluent Vietnamese. “If you don’t keep the ball then that means you’re chasing it. That can get rough in that heat. It can be a long day.”
It didn’t take long for the Vietnamese national team coaching staff to court their prodigal son. “It made sense on one level to consider playing for Vietnam,” Nguyen said, before showing his true stripes. “But I had a dream to get back into the US team. I knew I had to come home to be seen.”
The way back home
Nguyen left the bubble where he knew no one was looking. It had been seven years since he was called in for a USA cap, and a return to the fold was a longshot. But fast-forward to today and he is an MLS all-star, runner up for the league’s top player honours in 2014. He’s also threatening to fill the huge hole left by the retirement of long-time attacking talisman Landon Donovan in the Star and Stripes. Nguyen was singled out for praise by coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team-mates in national team camp early this year. “His first touch is great,” former youth national team-mate Jozy Altidore said. “We’ve all been waiting for him to kind of come along.”
“Playing with these guys, it’s like wow,” Nguyen said of the standard of international competition. “They’re all on a different level and they really elevate me. Everyone’s moving quicker, thinking quicker. For a player like me, a playmaker, it’s a fun environment to play in.”
At 29, Nguyen has matured to his true vintage. He moves along the pitch like a feather on a river. He’s elegant and rangy, and beloved in and around the city of Boston. With Klinsmann set to announce his squad for this month’s qualifiers home and away against Guatemala, no one would be surprised to see the name Nguyen right in the middle.