Lee Nguyen started a recent stroll down memory lane with a joke about his age. The passage of time nearly mandates it. He remembers his last experience with the U.S. national team fondly, though.
Nguyen traveled to Venezuela for the Copa America in 2007 as a 21-year-old midfielder keen to carve out a place in the plans for the 2010 World Cup cycle. It didn’t quite work out for him then after making just three appearances for a total of 41 minutes during that year, but his return to the international picture allows him to place that experience in perspective now.
“I was just a little teenager,” Nguyen said as he prepared to link up with his country ahead of the friendly against Colombia on Friday. “It was a great experience for me. I’ve grown so much as a player and a person. It’ll definitely be different. I have more years under my belt. It’ll be a different experience going into the team.”
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Seven years provides plenty of room for growth. Nguyen spent the interim period searching the world for the home he eventually found with the Revolution. He bounced around Europe, spent some heady times in Vietnam and then traveled back to the United States at the start of 2012 with thoughts of a return to the international scene firmly on his mind.
“I missed it a lot,” Nguyen said. “Any time you can play for your country and represent your country, that’s the highest honor and privilege you can have as a football player. You have to go out there and represent.”
Nguyen slid onto the right course when a stroke of fate carried him to New England three seasons ago. Vancouver deemed him surplus to requirements shortly after acquiring him through a weighted lottery, but Revolution coach Jay Heaps thought he could play an integral role as he rebuilt the club and snagged him out of the waiver draft. Heaps sought to overhaul the side and rely on more technical players to spur a revival. It proved the perfect fit between a club in need of an orchestrator and a player in need of a suitable role in the starting XI.
“You never have to worry about Lee when he’s on the ball,” Revolution forward Charlie Davies said. “You know when he’s on the ball, you feel comfortable. He’s not going to lose it. He’s so hard to take the ball from. He’s agile. He’s quick. And both feet are great.”
All of those qualities made him an important component of Heaps’ plans, but they only served as the foundation for his return to the international level. Nguyen always boasted considerable ingenuity and precision on the ball. Those traits aren’t enough to thrive there, though. He needed to ally his ability with a more consistent workrate off the ball, a more diligent approach to his defensive duties and a more overarching impact on matches.
Nguyen gradually embraced those principles and increased his role within the team. The relationship benefited both club and player. As the Revolution improved, Nguyen accepted more and more responsibility within the ranks. His performances influenced how the team performed on the whole. He settled into a role as the hub of the side, the one player often charged with supplying the extra bit of quality on a week-to-week basis.
Nguyen’s performances this season mirrored the continued growth of the club and underscored his ascent. His goal-scoring prowess (18 goals, tops among MLS midfielders) captured most of the headlines and prompted his unexpected MVP candidacy, but his pervasive impact on matches proved more telling. Davies noted recently how his overall performances — closing in the right areas and at the right times as the most advanced member of a midfield trio, corralling possession deftly, moving into dangerous spots consistently, slicing open opposing defenses and taking his chances ruthlessly — made a national team call-up possible. His production eventually demanded it.
“He’s showed good games here in the league,” Revolution midfielder Jermaine Jones said. “He’s scored a lot of goals. If you do that, then it’s normal that the national team and Jurgen Klinsmann call you in.”
Klinsmann picked up the phone recently and told Nguyen he planned to include him on the roster for this two-match set against Colombia and Republic of Ireland (Nguyen is expected to depart after the first game). Nguyen always pinpointed a return to this setting, but that discussion and its corresponding meaning transformed his aspirations into reality.
“That’s when it started coming to fruition that this is possible,” Nguyen said. “It was a great call. We had a good conversation. I’m wicked excited. This is, hopefully, just the first. I have to still keep going and keep pushing. That’s the main thing: As long as you keep playing well, you’re going to get more chances.”
His circuitous career path vindicates his approach and his sentiments. There are no guarantees even now. The memories of that brief interlude seven years ago remain fresh. It is Nguyen’s responsibility to ensure this second act makes the lengthy journey and the protracted wait for another chance worthwhile.
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