Boston is not a place where everybody knows Lee Nguyen’s name. But since Nguyen has led the Revolution into the MLS playoffs with an MVP-caliber season and has been called up to the U.S. national team, it could be time to start taking note of the country’s emerging soccer star.
“It’s ‘NWing’ but it has that accent to it and it’s tough for a lot of Americans to pronounce it like that,’’ Nguyen said recently. “So it’s easier when you take out the accent and just say Lee Win. Look at how it’s spelled in Vietnamese, it has a lot of accents above the E and the U. It wasn’t too bad growing up because there’s a lot of Vietnamese in Dallas and Plano – you would be surprised.’’
Nguyen, born in Richardson, Texas, has followed the game to Indiana University, Europe, Vietnam (he became the first American player in the V-League), Vancouver and, for the last three seasons, Boston.
Nguyen caught U.S. national team coaches’ attention as a youngster, his skill on the ball and darting runs setting him apart, and seemed to be in a position to be groomed for the full national team. Nguyen made his U.S. debut June 2, 2007, playing in an exhibition against China (4-1 win) in San Jose, Calif., then competed in two matches in Copa America in Venezuela.
But after an 18-minute stint against Colombia (1-0 loss) in Barquisimeto on July 5, 2007, Nguyen did not receive another call – until now. Colombia will again be the opponent, this time in London, as Nguyen and teammate Jermaine Jones are scheduled to play in Friday’s match, then return to the Revolution. The plan is for both players to skip the Republic of Ireland-U.S. game in Dublin Tuesday in preparation for the MLS Eastern Conference final against the New York Red Bulls (Nov. 23 and 29).
“It’s definitely a dream to be able to come back in and represent your country,’’ Nguyen said after the Revolution eliminated the Columbus Crew (7-3 aggregate). “So, I’m very honored and very happy and can’t wait. I mean I was just a little teenager (in ’07), it was a great experience for me.
“I’ve grown so much as a player and as a person. Obviously, I’ve got more years under my belt, too, so it will be a different experience going into the team now.
“This is hopefully the first – I’ve still got to keep going and keep pushing and that’s the main thing – as long you keep playing well you’re going to get more chances.’’
Nguyen was talking figuratively, but he has also grown physically in the last seven years. In ’07, Nguyen was a 140-pound, 20-year-old who had skipped his sophomore year of college to play professionally with PSV Eindhoven. Now, Nguyen says he’s “still not very big’’ at 155 pounds, though he is definitely playing that way.
Few players have made such a dramatic improvement as a goal-scorer this many seasons into their professional careers. After being waived by the Vancouver Whitecaps, Nguyen converted five times in his first MLS season with the Revolution, added four in 2013, and this season totaled 18 goals during the regular season, plus two in the playoffs.
“I’ve never been the guy the team’s going to rely on to score all the goals,’’ Nguyen said. “I wouldn’t consider myself a finisher or a forward but I have the technical ability to do so. I trained a lot when I was young to finish. I like to think of myself as clinical around the box but it’s just about getting chances and I think I’ve had more chances this season and it’s how often you can convert those chances.’’
Revolution coach Jay Heaps has been deploying Nguyen as a playmaker, but also emphasizing defense. The Revolution have been showing how their high-pressuring tactics can lead to high-scoring offensive outputs – the seven goals against the Crew set a league record for scoring in a two-game playoff series.
“Jay did great in helping me understand my role in helping the team out,’’ Nguyen said. “And when you look at the team and see everybody working hard you don’t want to be that guy who let the team down. I think it’s contagious, really, I think when you see the No. 10 doing it, or somebody who doesn’t really need to, for a striker, like Charlie (Davies), he’s up there, you see him pressuring. You don’t really see that in the big leagues, the striker putting that much pressure on. But when he does it it’s, man, I got to do it, he’s putting that work in, and I don’t want to let him down. And it goes all the way back to the midfield and it goes back to the center backs and it’s an all-team thing.’’
Traditionally, playmaking No. 10s are allowed to conserve energy, allow teammates to recover possession, then find places on the field to attack.
“I’m looking at it differently – those guys have a lot freer role in their systems and there are teams and players that do that really well,’’ Heaps said. “The best ones are the ones that defend a little bit, enough to get (the opposition) off-foot, and then find the ball further up the field.
“But Lee, to me, because he’s defending so well and he’s so good at winning the ball, he’s winning it and then having loads of space in front of him. And he’s also helping our team get higher up the field. And it’s not 30 passes before he gets the ball, it’s quick little 1-2 passes, then he’s got it and then he’s going and we’re getting our team moving and that’s when we’re really good, when we get the other team defending a little bit.
“That’s what we noticed right away – he wins challenges, he’s quick, he comes out with the ball, he’s more physical than you see when the ball’s in play. And we don’t want him going in and getting thumped and tackling people too hard but we want him to be in a position to win it and go.’’
Nguyen has scored more goals than any U.S.-born player in all first division professional leagues this season. Such high production will make it increasingly difficult to keep a low profile. But Nguyen is used to celebrity after his experience in Vietnam.
“People (were) letting me know – Viet pride, you’re representing all of us, we’re so proud of you,’’ Nguyen recalled. “My dad (Pham) always told me, ‘Everybody’s following you. I’m talking about everybody in Vietnam, they’re following you since you’ve been playing at IU, since you’ve been on the U20s, that’s when they started following you. You have no idea how proud they are of you being the first Vietnamese to play in Europe on a big club, PSV.’
“I was like okay, maybe, but didn’t really know what that meant. And to see the entire country love me and appreciate what I’ve done, it was just great to know that they’re so happy for what I’ve done. So, it basically made me work harder to not let them down.
“I mean, it had its perks but at the same time I was never like a celebrity, in the spotlight — that was my first experience. In Europe, the football fans would recognize you but it wasn’t paparazzi, TV, you weren’t on gossip magazines, you weren’t on the internet, TMZ, stuff like that. That was a whole different world when I stepped into that, being good friends with actors, models, whatever. You know, it was a crazy experience, awesome. It was cool but at same time I was there for football. It was nice to get all that interest, I guess fame, but I just wanted to concentrate on football. And if you talk to any footballer what they want most is to get the most out of their football career and be proud after they’re done playing, and to know they’ve reached all of their goals.
“At the time I felt I still had a lot more to prove. I wasn’t ready to settle in Vietnam and be content. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to come here.’’
After that experience, Nguyen is comfortable concentrating on his game and residing in relative anonymity south of Boston.
“My favorite food is Vietnamese,’’ Nguyen said. “So, Chinatown, Quincy. I haven’t really seen too many Vietnamese. I don’t run into them much as I would if I go to Dallas or Vietnamese shopping centers where they have restaurants, food market. I do miss the vibe a little bit. But I know where to go now, where to get things.’’