FOXBOROUGH - Lee Nguyen, one of the Revolution’s newest midfielders, has taken a creative approach to his career. Just 25, he already has played in four countries.
“[The route] is very different, but it’s all about following my dreams,’’ Nguyen said after a recent practice as the Revolution (2-4-0) prepared for Saturday’s game against the Red Bulls in New Jersey. “I always wanted to play pro and Europe was a big deal at the time. Not many people had a chance to go to Europe and play. I had a chance and I wanted to take it. I enjoyed it. I got a lot of experience out it.’’
Born and raised in Texas, where he first earned national recognition while playing with the Dallas Texans, a youth club, Nguyen refused overtures from MLS teams coming out of high school in 2005, and chose to go to soccer powerhouse Indiana. He made a splash there, too, earning a barrel of accolades, including Freshman of the Year awards from Soccer America and Soccer Times. But after a year, he moved on to the next challenge, joining prestigious PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
After a season, the team changed coaches, and in the new coach’s system, Nguyen found his playing time cut. He moved on again, to Randers, Denmark.
“Denmark was a lot better,’’ he said. “Randers is a small city. I went to find playing time and experience. I played at outside wing and toward the end of the season I played underneath the striker and I really liked it there.’’
Nguyen’s next move was even bolder. He went to Vietnam, the country his mother and father had left before the war to come to the United States.
It turns out soccer is Vietnam’s No. 1 sport, and Nguyen was the first American to play there, and perhaps more importantly, the first player of Vietnamese descent who had played in the top leagues in Europe. Revolution players may slip quietly among us on the streets of Boston, but in Vietnam, Nguyen was a true star. When he went for a walk in Ho Chi Minh City, people noticed, in throngs.
“Soccer’s really big over there,’’ he said. “They follow it religiously. Me being the first Vietnamese to play in Europe was a big deal to them, and playing for a top division like PSV, it was unheard of. They really looked up to that and they were really excited to see me come back home and play in front of the fans.’’
Nguyen didn’t disappoint, scoring a hat trick in his first game with Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) in the V-League, the top division in Vietnam. Nguyen was a star but the team finished seventh. The next season he played for Binh Duong FC.
While in Vietnam, Nguyen’s father joined him for 2 1/2 years.
“I had a great time in Vietnam,’’ Nguyen said. “It was amazing living in [Ho Chi Minh City]. There’s a lot of things to do there, and the food was amazing, the people were friendly. Everyone was family there.’’
With his father making the introductions, Nguyen met a lot of relatives he’d never seen before. Within five months, he was speaking Vietnamese fluently, a language he had heard his parents speak at home but never learned.
After two years, Nguyen signed a multiyear deal with Major League Soccer in December. He was taken by the Vancouver Whitecaps in the weighted lottery, but waived after preseason, a shock to the system.
Revolution coach Jay Heaps was surprised but very interested when he saw Nguyen was available.
“I watched his career unfold when he was with the youth teams,’’ said Heaps. “I knew the characteristics he had. He was very good, very technical, but he also has the ability to create for his teammates.’’
After six games for the Revolution, including five starts, Nguyen has found a spot in the talented attacking core at midfield. He nearly scored his first goal in a 2-1 loss to D.C. United April 14, taking a pass from Jose Moreno and slicing a shot just outside the right post in the 40th minute. At the time, he was running a fever and plagued with chills, but stuck it out for 55 minutes.
“He’s excellent, he’s really composed on the ball,’’ said Heaps. “He adds another element in our midfield that we really like, and he’s not afraid to kick the ball. That’s important when you have players that want to receive it and want to get it, even if there’s pressure on the back, he’s a player that’s always willing to get the ball.
“We’re asking a lot of him defensively. That’s what we want from him; if he works hard defensively, we’ll give him the freedom to go forward.’’
Nguyen, too, is happy in New England, in large part because the formation and tactics Heaps is trying to play fit his style. And then, of course, he thinks his friends are close enough now to visit, because after all, Texas is in the United States, too.