One-time U.S. phenom Nguyen enjoying life in Vietnam League
Once in a while, someone in the Dutch town of Eindhoven would walk up to
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
"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,
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,
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 Playing as a withdrawn striker or as an attacking midfielder, Nguyen had 12 goals and 16 assists in 24 games before packing his bags after a disagreement with Hoang Anh Gia Lai's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,
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
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
"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.'"