New England's Lee Nguyen emerges as key player to watch in MLS Cup final

New England gets to MLS Cup against Galaxy thanks in part to Lee Nguyen

The irony doesn't escape Lee Nguyen. More than four decades after his parents fled war-torn Vietnam for a new life in the U.S., their son had to return there to find his own way.

"You've got yourself a great movie," Nguyen says with a laugh. "It's been a crazy road. It kind of molded me into the player I am."

Nguyen emerged as one of Major League Soccer's best this season by scoring 18 goals, finishing third in voting for the league's MVP award, making the postseason all-star team and carrying the New England Revolution to Sunday's MLS Cup final against the Galaxy at StubHub Center.

"It's definitely been my best year as a professional," says Nguyen, who led all U.S.-born players in the league and all MLS midfielders in goals. "This is definitely the funnest time in my career."

But he had to take a long and circuitous route to get there, going from high school in Plano, Texas, on to Indiana University and then to undistinguished stints with pro teams in Holland and Denmark before he landed in Vietnam in 2009.

He was just 23, at a crossroads in his soccer career. And one of the first things he learned about himself is that he couldn't communicate in Vietnamese.

"I really didn't speak it at all growing up once I got in school. So I kind of lost that along the way," he says. "But they didn't really speak English. I was forced to talk back, and it made my Vietnamese a lot better."

That wasn't all he learned. As the first ethnic Vietnamese to play soccer in Europe and the first American to play soccer in Vietnam, Nguyen discovered he was already famous in his parents' homeland, where he was mobbed on the street.

"The Vietnamese — in Vietnam, outside of Vietnam — when we see the success of our athletes, it is absolutely a source of pride for everybody," says Henry Nguyen, a venture capitalist and part-owner of the fledgling L.A. Football Club, which will begin MLS play in 2017. He is not related to Lee Nguyen.

The pay was good in Vietnam, the soccer league competitive and Nguyen was successful — he had 13 goals and 16 assists in 24 appearances in his first season — but playing there was the soccer equivalent of the witness protection program. It was as if Nguyen had suddenly disappeared as far as coaches and teams in the rest of the world were concerned.

So after two years there, Nguyen came to the same conclusion his parents Michelle and Pham once reached: With a lot of hard work and a little good fortune, a better life was possible in the U.S.

As with his parents, that didn't happen quickly or easily. Nguyen started 59 games in his first two seasons in MLS and scored nine times for a Revolution team that won just 23 of 68 games.

But it all came together this season. After watching the Revolution go winless — and goal-less — in its first three games, Nguyen scored the game-winner in stoppage time to beat San Jose in the fourth game of the season. And neither he nor his teammates have looked back since.

"This team has worked so hard, and we've come through so much together," says Nguyen, 28. "I don't think anyone expected us to be here. We've proved a lot."

Nguyen has good vision on the field and is a great finisher. But according to Revolution Coach Jay Heaps, Nguyen's biggest asset may be his feet, which Heaps says are the quickest in MLS. That allows him to both control and get rid of the ball quickly, skills he learned from his father, a former soccer player who instructed his son in backyard games and drills shortly after the boy learned to walk.

Nguyen also practiced karate and judo as a youngster, activities he says improved his balance, footwork and lower-body strength, allowing him to play more physical than his 5-foot-8, 150-pound body would suggest.

And he's done his best work since the August addition of U.S. World Cup star Jermaine Jones to the New England roster. With the bruising Jones battering opposing midfielders, Nguyen has been able to push forward to score nine goals in the final 10 regular-season games. He added two more scores —to go with three assists — in four playoffs games.

Nguyen's exploits in Vietnam may have gone unnoticed, but his breakout season in MLS has drawn attention from at least two English clubs, Fulham and Southampton. And last month he was called in by the U.S. national team for the first time since 2007.

For Henry Nguyen, the LAFC investor, Lee Nguyen's path to success, one that took him from his homeland to his parents' homeland and back again, carries a lesson for a Vietnamese immigrant community that now makes up the sixth-largest foreign-born population in the U.S.

It proved that it's not where you're from, but where you're going that's important.

"We're now on the second generation. The athletes that you see now are also part of that generation," Henry Nguyen says. "The amazing thing about our society and our culture in America is that actually your origin is part of your identity, but in the end it doesn't actually matter in terms of who you are.

"The great thing about America is the assimilation."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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