As the clock ticked down to the end of the MLS primary transfer window late Tuesday night, Lee Nguyen set his alarm and got ready for bed, resigned to the fact he was spending another two months — at least — with the New England Revolution.
“I hadn’t heard anything from my agent, I hadn’t heard anything from the club,” Nguyen said.
And then, just before midnight, his cellphone buzzed. Nguyen was on his way to the expansion Los Angeles Football Club, which had ended a long night of negotiating by agreeing to pay $700,000 in allocation money for the rights to the veteran midfielder.
Nguyen, who arrived in L.A. on Wednesday, is available for selection Saturday when LAFC (5-2) play host to FC Dallas (3-1-3) in the club’s second game at Banc of California Stadium (Univision, 1 p.m. PT). The match will be LAFC’s first without striker Marcos Urena, the league’s assist co-leader who underwent surgery Friday for a facial fracture sustained in Sunday’s win over the Seattle Sounders.
“I got that call and my life changes,” Nguyen said after Friday’s practice, his second with LAFC. “After that I was up for the next three hours. I couldn’t go to sleep.”
But he wasn’t the only one excited by the trade. Since his first appearance with a U.S. age-group national team as a teenager, Nguyen has inspired many in the Vietnamese community — both in the U.S. and in Vietnam, where he played for two years. So his arrival in Southern California received heavy coverage on Vietnamese-language radio and in the lively newspapers that circulate in central Orange County, home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside Vietnam.
“Him coming to Los Angeles is an advantage for both the team and the player,” Diem Vo, a 70-year-old grandfather from Fountain Valley, said as he ticked off the clubs Nguyen has played for from memory.
“I can’t wait to see what he’ll do. Little Saigon is excited. I’m excited.”
But if the expatriate community has embraced Nguyen, who was born and raised in suburban Dallas, he has embraced it right back.
“I didn’t know how big I was to the Vietnamese community until I went to Vietnam,” he said. “That was very humbling. Ever since then I’ve carried that pride with me, to try to do the best I can for them.
“You get joy and you get energy when [people] come up to you and they say ‘My son, he has a poster of you, he has your jersey.’ Hearing that gives me the biggest smile because now I’m playing the game for more than just myself.”
Nguyen hasn’t played the game for anybody this year. After last season, his sixth in New England, Nguyen requested a trade. When the Revolution refused, he sat out the first three weeks of preseason camp. He eventually showed up for training in mid-February, but new manager Brad Friedel refused to play Nguyen, an MVP finalist in 2014 when he scored a career-high 18 goals and led the Revolution to the MLS Cup.
“I needed a fresh start because I didn’t have that passion anymore,” Nguyen, 31, said of his trade request. “I needed to get that fire back. A change of scenery would do that.”
John Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president of soccer operations, monitored the soap opera from afar — and when New England got serious about trading Nguyen, LAFC got serious about acquiring him.
The club’s offer wasn’t the richest the Revolution received but the team didn’t want to send Nguyen to an Eastern Conference rival, so a deal was worked out about 90 minutes before the transfer window closed. Thorrington didn’t just improve his team with the deal, though; he also added to the diversity of a roster that now boasts players representing 15 countries. He also pleased one of the team’s original owners, Vietnamese American businessman Henry Nguyen, making the trade a Nguyen-Nguyen proposition.
“We think first and foremost of what the player brings on the field,” Thorrington said of Nguyen, a quick, creative player who has 51 goals and 49 assists in 191 MLS games. “But it is not lost on us the off-field benefit that Lee may provide.
“We have said from the get-go we’re going to represent L.A. And 15 nationalities is certainly representative of our demographic here.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11