Once in a while, someone in the Dutch town of Eindhoven would walk up to Lee Nguyen and ask for his autograph. Then, once he moved to Randers, Denmark, he became more recognizable -- most of the 60,000 residents knew enough to spot a player from their hometown club. So he was used to signing a couple of jerseys, smiling for a few pictures. Yet he was completely unprepared for what happened last season.
When Nguyen moved to Vietnam in 2009 to play for Hoang Anh Gia Lai, he instantly shot to superstardom. Fans mobbed him in shopping centers and tried to grab his clothes outside stadiums. They stopped him on the street for photographs wherever he went. And, within 12 months of moving there, he was on the cover of Dan Ong, Vietnam's answer to GQ. All in all, it made life pretty good for the 23-year-old Nguyen.
"The status that I have here is awesome and kind of fun," he says with a self-conscious chuckle. "Here, it's not just one city. The whole country knows who I am."
It has been five years since Nguyen turned his back on Major League Soccer and three since he earned his three and only caps for the U.S. National team. And with stops in the Netherlands, Denmark and now Vietnam, he is taking an unorthodox route to get back in the picture -- one that has just happened to make him a rockstar on the other side of the world.
Nguyen first turned heads after a breakout freshman season at Indiana and his performance at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships in the Netherlands. Impressed with Nguyen's ability on the ball, PSV Eindhoven's manager at the time, Guus Hiddink, signed him to the club. "It was big news in Vietnam when I joined PSV," he says. "There's no one in Vietnam who's really broken out of Asia."
But over the next two years, he languished in the reserves, making only one appearance for the senior side. Then, when Hiddink left, his replacement, Ronald Koeman, told Nguyen he was not in his plans. In 2008, he continued his European travels with Randers F.C. in Denmark, where he started about half the games. Nguyen was just beginning to feel comfortable, he said, when he was yet again marginalized by the arrival of a new coach at the end of the season -- he did not seek a contract extension of his one-year deal.
When an offer came from Vietnam in 2009, he took the biggest -- and furthest -- leap of his career. Curious about pursuing a new opportunity while reconnecting with his heritage, he joined Hoang Anh Gia Lai, a club based in Pleiku, smack in the sweltering, humid center of the narrow country. Because players in Southeast Asia tend to be smaller, they are more technically-oriented and keep the ball on the ground. It seemed to suit Nguyen perfectly. Playing as a withdrawn striker or as an attacking midfielder, Nguyen had 12 goals and 16 assists in 24 games before packing his bags after a disagreement with Hoang Anh Gia Lai's coach. Still, his season was good enough for the fans to vote him the second-best player in the country in a league poll.
He moved to Binh Duong F.C. outside of Ho Chi Minh City, where he is trying to help the club to a third V-League title in four years -- it currently sits third in the standings. But before committing to it, he tried to return to the United States. However, when he got down to negotiating a contract with MLS, the league would not offer him anything above the minimum for five years ($17,500 per year). He was willing to take a pay cut, just not by that much.
"I guess they held a grudge against any players turning down MLS and then going overseas and trying to come back," says Nguyen, whose deal in Vietnam allowed him to help pay his sister's tuition at Texas Christian University.
MLS does not discuss the specifics of contract negotiations, but the league's player personnel director, Todd Durbin, denied there was any sort of grudge. "We make this very clear to the players," he said, "if they choose to decline our offer and start their career in Europe, they shouldn't assume that offer will still be on the table if they decide to come back." Durbin added that the offer was based on what MLS officials had seen of Nguyen during his time abroad.
So Nguyen stayed in Vietnam, even if it meant remaining a little further out of sight. The V-League, which unfolds 11 time zones away without much of a reputation, doesn't show up much on national team coach Bob Bradley's radar. "I know that it's going to be harder for me to break back in and get another shot, because I'm not being seen as much," says Nguyen. "But I'm only 23."
In the meantime, Nguyen is soaking in the country he only ever heard of from his Vietnamese parents. Though he had only been there once before, the move felt like a homecoming. Nguyen spoke the language as a child in Dallas and, with his teammates refusing to speak anything else to him, it has all come rushing back to him out of necessity. Still, the transition was never going to be easy. His father moved to the Far East with him to help him adjust.
And the experience has been full of surprises. For instance, Nguyen didn't expect the clubs to be just as family-oriented as Vietnamese society. Players take all their meals together, spend most of their time as a group, and report to the team's complex or hotel two full days before every game. Away from the field, Nguyen also took a while to understand how so many of his teammates could drink three or four cups of strong coffee a day and still embrace the afternoon siesta. Just one of those, he says, was enough to keep him wired all day.
"I'm starting to get used to the living here and the culture," he adds after more than a year there. "It's definitely a lot more relaxed."
Nguyen is one of five foreigners on the club, according to Binh Duong coach Hiep Nguyen Van. The others, also seduced by the rapidly growing V-League and the country's low cost of living, come from Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria.
"On paper, to my club, I'm a foreigner," he says. "But the people have accepted me as Vietnamese and I hang out with all the Vietnamese players. Even some of the crazy fans, they say, 'Hey, you're not American, you're Vietnamese, man.'"