The interaction between seasoned internationals and a cohort of younger players preparing for next month’s do-or-die Olympic qualifier against Colombia has been one of the central themes of a unique winter camp. Some variation of the word “mentor” has come up time and again in interviews given by U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players.
“We urge the older guys to look after [the younger players],” Klinsmann said last month. “Pass on your knowledge. Give them a hint. Give them advices. Give them information, because it’s a huge, huge challenge ahead of them because we really want to go to Rio de Janeiro this summer.”
But it hasn’t been just the U-23s who’ve been listening. Among the campers honing in on the advice and habits of the “older guys” is a 29-year-old, 10-year pro who’s played professionally on three continents and been an MLS MVP finalist. For Lee Nguyen, who earned his first senior U.S. start in Sunday’s 3-2 friendly win over Iceland, this camp could mark the long-awaited launch, or even the end, of his delayed international career.
For years, if you followed U.S. soccer, Nguyen’s name probably was either just past the tip of your tongue or buried somewhere in the back of your mind. He was the Indiana University freshman who left school to join Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven but played just twice in two years before going on loan in Denmark. Remember him?
He was the Dallas-area product who spent another couple seasons in Vietnam, earning minutes in a league far removed from the headlines while getting closer to his ancestral roots. Whatever happened to that guy?
He eventually returned to North America but failed to catch on with the Vancouver Whitecaps and by the time Nguyen signed with the New England Revolution in March 2012, it had been nearly five years since the skillful midfielder had represented his country. He was far removed from the national team picture.
“Everybody that plays, there’s the goal to hopefully be able to get into the national team,” Nguyen told SI.com this week. “For me, I had to try to be a mainstay with a club team and fortunately, I was able to find my footing with New England. From there, it was really proving to yourself and trying to earn your spot, and the rest will take care of itself.”
A spectacular 2014 campaign, during which he tallied 20 goals and eight assists and led the Revs to the MLS Cup final, resulted in a call-up from Klinsmann for a pair of year-end friendlies in Europe.
Nguyen was back in frame after seven years in the international wilderness. But a nagging groin injury and a long MLS season contributed to a poor showing at the ensuing January camp.
He wouldn’t see the field in a U.S. shirt again until last October, when he played 18 minutes in a miserable exhibition loss to Costa Rica.
This January camp and the games against Iceland and Canada (Friday; 10:15 p.m. ET; Fox Sports 1, UniMas) may just represent Nguyen’s best last chance to establish himself on Klinsmann’s depth chart. So Nguyen took no chances. He was going to come in healthy and hungry.
“When I was finishing the season [in 2014], I was kind of nursing an injury all through the playoffs so after the season I kind of just took 4-6 weeks rest, letting my groin heal. This year was more just maintaining that fitness I had at the end just in case I got called in to January camp,” Nguyen said. “I had no idea [if I was getting called up]. I knew I was on the preliminary roster. You never know. You just want to be prepared if you are called in so you’re not so far behind. So that was my mentality.”
He followed an offseason program sent by U.S. coaches.
“The numbers speak for itself. We did tests and my numbers weren’t as good last year as they were this year. I came in a lot fitter. To me, that was a goal: to be more prepared mentally and physically coming into this camp,” Nguyen said.
And then once he arrived, he’d maintain his vigilance. Work on establishing chemistry with key veterans. They’re the ones he’d be playing with in the games that matter. Forget the 10 years of life as a pro. Stay humble, listen and learn. Nguyen showed up with the same number of senior caps as Jordan Morris. There still was plenty to prove.
“Lee came in a little bit different to last year,” Klinsmann said. “He was really prepared for this camp. From day one on, he set the tone. He says, ‘O.K., I was here last year. I didn’t make the impression that I wanted to make, so I better make it right now.’ He was impressionable in the starting lineup after a week already with us. ‘Oh, look at Lee.’ He really is, after three weeks of training and hard work, definitely one of the winners of this period right now.”
Nguyen is a natural playmaker, which the U.S. typically has lacked in recent years.
Klinsmann’s team has been anchored by captain Michael Bradley and veteran Jermaine Jones, both of whom are box-to-box midfielders, while faster or more direct players have been deployed in the wide positions. Bradley certainly has the ability to create in tight spaces and forward Clint Dempsey often retreats between the lines when he’s on the field, but both are better at other things and neither has the rhythm or subtlety of a bona fide No. 10.
To establish the sort of proactive possession Klinsmann has been looking for, a player with Nguyen’s instincts usually is required. And on Sunday against Iceland, the U.S. built a sizable 62%-38% possession advantage. Granted, the visitors were missing most of their big names and were slower and more passive than the elite teams Klinsmann is chasing. But Nguyen’s performance still opened some eyes. He started on the left but frequently pinched in and found gaps between Iceland’s midfield and defense. His passing was perfect in the first half and he came close to recording a couple of assists—Gyasi Zardes certainly should have done better with Nguyen’s precise, 16th-minute cross.
Nguyen shifted underneath the forwards in the second half and still was effective. He finally missed on a couple of passes but was part of a U.S. core that dominated the game’s later stages.
“You can start to see they’re more comfortable finding me in those gaps. For me, I can interlink the play between the midfield and forwards. That’s like what they’re looking for,” Nguyen said following his 90-minute effort at StubHub Center. “I’ve played most of my games with the Revs underneath, so obviously I’m comfortable there. But at the same time, it’s easy to play with these guys.”
Klinsmann said that when an opponent keeps things tight and compact in back, “You need a player who’s very skillful, easy turns, easy to connect people.” On Sunday, Nguyen fit the bill.
Whether he does so going forward is anyone’s guess. Darlington Nagbe is making a push for a similar role, and Klinsmann may decide that games against more robust or skillful opponents may require a U.S. midfield with Bradley, Jones and a traditional No. 6. Nguyen told SI.com that he's flexible. He’s waited so long to cement his international status that he’d be willing to play anywhere, and do anything, to ensure he stays on Klinsmann’s radar.
“I want to be part of the World Cup qualifying squad and everybody wants to be on the World Cup team. That’s a big goal, obviously. I want to be in Copa América. But I think you’ve got to prove your worth. You’ve got to take advantage of your chances and I think I’m trying to do that,” he said. “I think the main thing is, like they always say, you can’t take these opportunities for granted. It’s an honor to be here, obviously, and you can’t waste chances when you get called in.”