Lee Nguyen might not be a household name in the United States, but his play in Vietnam for Hoàng Anh Gia Lai, (nicknamed HAGL) has turned heads.
Nguyen, a Texas-native is plying his trade in the V-League, the top division in Vietnam. After stints with PSV Eindhoven in Holland and Randers in Denmark, the U.S. international decided the time was right to make the move to Vietnam, the country his family originates from.
"I wanted a new experience and to let the fans back in Vietnam see me play and this opportunity came up," Nguyen told Goal.com via email. "It was just something that interested me more than the other options I had."
This season, Nguyen has racked up impressive stats, scoring 12 goals and adding 16 assists in 24 matches.
"I wanted to win the golden ball and show the people here I am the best player in this league. I don’t think I disappointed at all this season, and I am very happy with my performance."
While Nguyen has enjoyed success on the field as well as off, recently featuring in GQ Magazine Vietnam, a few years ago Nguyen never looked likely to be playing in Vietnam.
He grew up in Richardson, Texas, and played for the Dallas Texans, a prestigious youth club, which most notably produced U.S. international Clint Dempsey.
"I had a great experience with the Dallas Texans," Nguyen reminisced. "We won everything in Texas including the Dallas Cup one year, and also the Regional Championship a few times. We were crowned national champions my senior year."
From there, Nguyen decided to attend Indiana University. After his first season and a successful showing at the Youth World Championships in the Netherlands, Nguyen made the move across the pond to PSV Eindhoven.
"I went to Indiana because of its prestigious soccer program, and also they have a great business school on top of that, which was what I was planning on majoring in," Nguyen explained. "I didn't think I would go pro after a year, although I could have gone straight out of high school, but I wanted to experience college first. Then after my first season I found out I had interest not only in [Major League Soccer], but also overseas, and that has also been a dream for me to play in Europe. I said to myself, 'Not many people get this opportunity,' so I took it."
Nguyen was used sparingly in his first season under manager Guus Hiddink, but in his second, Nguyen was expected to become a starter in a wide midfield position in Hiddink’s 4-3-3 system. Unfortunately, Nguyen was frozen out of the lineup when Ronald Koeman took over after Hiddink left to become manager of Russia.
"I thought [being frozen out] was unusual because I was doing so well for Hiddink, and this was the year I was supposed to be playing more," Nguyen remarked. "Everybody on the team thought so as well, but then [Ronald Koeman] came in and had different plans, and he brought in different players. I realized that this is just how soccer is."
Nguyen picked up a few injuries as well, and eventually moved on from PSV, joining Randers in Denmark.
"It was the first time I really featured in a lot of games with the first team. I was playing under a new coach, Collin Todd, and a new system from PSV’s. I got to learn a lot tactically from him and it helped my game a lot getting that experience."
Eventually, Nguyen decided it was the right time in his career to try something new, which prompted the move to Vietnam.
"I enjoyed my time in Europe and I love the way soccer is played there," said Nguyen. "I hope to go back there, but I just wanted a new experience."
HAGL started the season off well, finishing the first half in third place, but while other teams strengthened in the transfer market, HAGL did not. The team ended the season in seventh place.
Despite the fact that the team underperformed on the field, Nguyen has been treated like a rock star off it.
"Sometimes it is hard when you want to just go to the supermarket quickly, and you can’t walk around without everybody staring at you and asking for a picture or autograph," Nguyen said. "The people here are great though. They enjoy watching good soccer and it shows."
With the season over, Nguyen will be flying back to Texas for some time off, but has some exciting things lined up. He will train with some clubs in Europe, including Arsenal, to try to spark some interest.
"It is part of the plan to go train with Arsenal at the end of the season," Nguyen revealed. "I’m looking forward to that. Also, I will be traveling around training with some other clubs around Europe."
As far as a possible MLS union, a return home would interest Nguyen one day.
"I would be interested to play in Major League Soccer. I have a lot of fans back home that have been asking me when I'll be back so that they can see me play again. We'll have to wait and see."
Max Zeger is a Goal.com contributor. He also writes the blog Yanks Soccer. You can follow him on twitter @mcmz403.
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