New England Revolution

Lee Nguyen’s return to New England presents an opportunity for the Revolution

Already a member of New England's All-Time Team, the 33-year-old has a real chance to add to his legacy.

Lee Nguyen
Lee Nguyen celebrates an assist in 2017. AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Even after the Revolution completed multiple trades in August, one additional move felt inevitable given the literal hole in the lineup with the absence of Carles Gil.

Looking at any heat map of the team’s player movements in games without Gil (who is potentially out for the season following surgery on his Achilles), it’s immediately clear what the Spaniard’s absence means.

In the middle of the attacking third of the field, there has often been an actual blank space.

Revolution players haven’t been moving through a place that, in theory, should be one of the most trafficked. And even though Gil isn’t normally lined up as a central attacking midfielder (often starting games in a wider position), he tends to drift inside and facilitates others doing so as well.

And more than merely occupying space — heat maps have always had a limited value — it’s what Gil does with this real estate. When New England has possession, his passing helps link things together. He is, to use a possibly apocryphal Reggie Jackson quote, the straw that stirs the drink.

Without him, the concoction of New England’s lineup becomes separated. Despite having two Designated Players in attack, the Revolution’s offense has struggled to score goals. The main reason is an inability to connect passes in the final third.

Take for example the one game in 2020 Gil played in its entirety: A 1-0 win over Montreal in New England’s MLS is Back Tournament opener. Despite scoring only once, New England created a wealth of scoring opportunities. They were the game’s deserved winners.

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The most frequent passing combination for either team that day was Gil finding forward Gustavo Bou, which he did 14 times.

Given that fact, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Gil passing to Bou led to the game’s only goal. It’s also worth noting that Gil was involved with four of the top-10 passing combinations in the game overall.

But in almost every game without Gil this season, New England’s most frequent passing combination involves a defensive player passing to another defensive player (sometimes even involving goalkeeper Matt Turner).

It’s reflective of a stark but obvious reality: Minus Gil, Revolution attacking players — talented as they might be — have been unable to consistently work together. The result has been five draws in 10 games this season (New England currently sits fifth in the Eastern Conference).

So it’s into these circumstances that a member of the Revolution’s All-Time Team steps back into the fold.

Lee Nguyen, the talisman of the 2014 run to MLS Cup who was traded away after a protracted holdout in 2018, was re-acquired earlier this week.

Nguyen returns via trade following sparse minutes playing for MLS expansion side Inter Miami. And while asking the 33-year-old to replace Gil is clearly unreasonable, he still possesses the ability to help alleviate some of the team’s main problems.

A position Nguyen made his own during his first stint in New England — six seasons in which he totaled 51 goals and 49 assists — was in the exact place on the field where the Revolution currently have a hole.

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It’s commonly referred to as the “No. 10” role (based on historical soccer numbering), and is a reference to the playmaker. Tucked in behind the forwards but in front of the midfield, it’s a role that, by definition, helps achieve connection in the team.

Nguyen, though he’s never actually worn the No. 10 shirt, has always had a knack for this position. Speaking with the media on Thursday, he offered his take.

“I feel I can help them in different ways, whether it’s playing the 10 or the 8,” Nguyen explained (the No. 8 is a central midfielder). “But everyone has seen my game and I feel like I can help facilitate and give chances to these guys up top while also being able to help with composure in possession and fluidity with our attack.”

It seems to echo comments made by Revolution head coach Bruce Arena in recent weeks. After the August debut of midfielder Tommy McNamara, Arena praised McNamara’s technical quality and passing, adding that it was “something we need a little bit more of in our lineup.”

And following the 2-0 loss to New York City FC earlier in September, Arena — who bluntly acknowledged his team had been outplayed — again touched on what was ailing New England’s attack: “We couldn’t connect on our passes.”

Arena is characteristically unmoved by a discussion of tactics, explaining Thursday that Nguyen will simply be deployed “somewhere in the midfield.”

“We don’t get all hung up on defining that as a number 10,” said Arena, though he admitted Nguyen is “certainly capable of playing those positions on the field.”

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But wherever he ends up playing, Nguyen has a chance to help solve New England’s connectivity issues.

For all of the (rightful) attention on Nguyen’s past with the Revolution, it’s what he could potentially do for the team’s immediate future that triggered his return. And Nguyen, ever the astute reader of the game, is aware of this.

“I think Bruce knew before he traded for me what I can bring to the team and with all the weapons on this team, I’m thrilled.”

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