The 2014 MLS MVP race has a number of viable candidates. This is the first in a series in which Planet Futbol writers state their case for why they believe a specific candidate sticks out above the rest. The league will name its MVP on Dec. 2.
On many occasions during the 2014 season, Lee Nguyen alone was worth the price of admission to a New England Revolution match. His contributions were a major factor in reversing an eight-game losing streak in midseason and carrying the Revs into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
His statistics aren’t as impressive as Robbie Keane’s or Obafemi Martins’, although his 18 goals were the most scored by an American player in the league, the most ever by an MLS midfielder and nestled right between Keane’s 19 and Martins’ 17 on the goal-scoring chart. Nguyen also plays a deeper position, in central midfield, and he was the only non-forward in the top five MLS goal-scorers.
This is a guy who was cut from the Vancouver Whitecaps in preseason two years ago after returning to the league from Vietnam and being awarded to the 'Caps in a weighted lottery. After starring at Indiana University and going pro, he had a brief look from the U.S. national team in 2007, but he struggled to make his mark in Europe and went to Vietnam to kick-start his career. Serious questions persisted about whether he could handle MLS’s physicality and whether he'd ever reappear on the U.S. radar, but he’s answered those questions by becoming an even smarter player and creating his own space on the field.
18 (4th most in MLS; Most among Americans; Most by a midfielder in MLS history)
9 (Most in MLS, second most in MLS history)
PLANET FUTBOL BEST XI
7 times in 2014 (3 Player of the Week honors)
REVS' RECORD WHEN HE SCORES OR ASSISTS
Scored or assisted on 47% of NE goals
Nguyen is deceptively quick, and he can use that change of pace when he needs to, but the reason he doesn’t stand out as much as the others on the MVP shortlist is that he doesn’t often need to. He positions himself in a way that allows his technique to take over rather than relying on what athleticism he has.
His most frequent position is between an opponent’s defensive and midfield lines. That makes him tough to mark because center backs can’t decide whether to step up to him or call back a defensive midfielder — if they even realize he’s there, which they often don’t.
Because of this, Nguyen’s vision is his best characteristic. He frequently looks over his shoulder to check his positioning compared to the opposition, which seems like common sense, but it’s amazing how few MLS players do it frequently, including some in the U.S. national team pool. He always wants the ball at his feet, driving the team forward and initiating attacks.
When he picks up the ball in the attack, that means Nguyen is often in Zone 14, where the majority of goals are created. Zone 14 is the space directly on top of the opposing penalty area, so-called because it’s the 14th grid created by demarcating a field into 18 “zones”:
This is where Nguyen is at his best, receiving passes from teammates higher up the field, cutting back on defenders and having a go at goal from 20-plus yards. He times his runs for maximum effectiveness, popping up in dangerous areas without being tracked opponents.
When Nguyen produced this season, New England became a playoff team. The Revs lost just once when he either scored or assisted, in a 5-1 result toward the end of their eight-game losing streak. From July 30 on, he scored 12 goals and added four assists, coinciding with the team’s move back up the Eastern Conference standings and into second place.
In games where he didn’t score or assist, the Revs went 3-12-2, making the fact that he only failed to do so in three games in the second half of the year (New England was 0-2-1 in those three) that much more important. It’s not a stretch to say that without Nguyen, the Revolution wouldn’t have made the playoffs.
That, coupled with his playing style, made him the Most Valuable Player in MLS for 2014.