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TIAS, Du Nord, The Original Winger, Soccer By Ives, and The Offside Rules will be hosting a party Friday night 9pm in downtown Seattle at Kell’s Irish Pub (FYI - bar charges $5 cover, which is not going to us). It’s a true soccer bar I’m told, should be a good time. Won’t you join us?
New Podcast Coming To iTunes: WaitingForGaetjens.com
Hear me butcher first and last names and attempt to make co-host Greg Lalas laugh as he tries to bring serious analysis to the world of American soccer. We’re looking towards a weekly schedule to begin after a special week of several run-up shows revolving around MLS Cup. Those few shows will also be downloadable at MLSnet.com. The plan is to pull in the best guests we can and keep it entertaining and informative. Please check it out–RSL GM Garth Lagerway joins us tomorrow–and let us know who you would like to see on the guest list. We’ll get it right next time.
Now back to regularly scheduled programming already in progress…
I can’t remember the last time I put up a player interview on the site, but I’ve been fascinated with Lee Nguyen for awhile now. And then over a stretch of one month this fall the 23-year-old attacker went from Vietnam superstar to Arsenal trainee to FC Dallas off-season practice attendee. Curious, I went looking for some info, but found few answers. Here’s this kid living large over in Vietnam, cover of GQ, etc, etc. But we never hear much about him Stateside. We can’t begin to pronounce his Vietnamese club team and know nothing of his life in the far East, which is entirely different from every American soccer player, maybe in history.
On the phone the Texas native with Vietnamese roots sounds like his fellow Texan Clint Dempsey–that rough southern drawl lazy on the crackling cell phone satellites…
TIAS: You’re in Dallas now, you came from London, right?
NGUYEN: I was at Arsenal for three weeks, and I just got back from London to Dallas.
Who exactly were you training with there?
I was training with the reserve team for the majority of the time, and I had three sessions with their first team and Arsene Wenger.
And it was part of your previous contract that you went to Arsenal, correct?
My club team in Vietnam, they have connections with Arsenal. before I signed that contract we wanted to have an agreement to use that affiliation and say after the season I could go over and train with Arsenal. After the season, Arsenal looked at my resume, saw what I did and agreed to take me on. It all ended up working out.
So you’re in Dallas, the season in Vietnam just ended. What are you doing there and what’s the next step?
I’m supposed to be back in Vietnam in January, but I’m looking at some other options right now. I’m training here with FC Dallas, feeling that out, and we’ll see what happens.
Are you in contract right now or are you a free agent?
Kind of like a free agent. There wouldn’t be a transfer fee, you know? So if I want to leave [Vietnam], I can leave. I just have to terminate that contract, but that’s the easy part.
Talk to me about Vietnam. I’m fascinated by you going over there. It’s quite the departure from the usual U.S. player path, if there even is a usual path anymore. You obviously have family ties to the country, and you’ve become a bonafide star in that nation, even if fans in the States hear very little from you or about you. Give me a little flavor of playing and life over there.
It’s was tight. I loved the fans, the atmosphere. My club team [Hoàng Anh Gia Lai] is in Pleiku (Play Cu) [in the central interior of the country]. We played the majority of our games in Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City. There are so many people there who go to the games. They love football. It was always a crazy atmosphere when we go to the stadiums.
What was your living situation?
I had my own place, but all the teammates lived close to each other. The club has their own set of apartments for the players. So they had me all situated. And the majority of the games are away, so we were always going into the city and staying at hotels. We’d train there for a few days before the games. We’d have Sunday off, and then report on Monday to our home training ground.
You’re easily a bigger star in Vietnam than you were in the Netherlands or even here in the US. What was that like?
It’s definitely a different life over there. Coming back here to Dallas, I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about what they are going to write in the papers or anything like that. Or get taken in some bad pictures or something. Over there, I step out of the house or go to the cities, and they are going to know every move that I make. Going to the grocery store, everybody sees me and knows who I am. It’s just that kind of crazy lifestyle.
I think you might win the title for celebrity American soccer player, albeit just in Vietnam, but I can’t think of another American anywhere who has had that kind of experience and fan fair from playing the sport.
It was fun, but it can definitely take its toll on you. All the time you always got to keep watch where you go and be careful. Especially, you can’t go anywhere by yourself because it’s very dangerous.
Why specifically is it dangerous?
I mean, you’re a star over there in Vietnam. People see that. They recognize your face. At night especially, some people want to hurt you, you know? People get jealous and don’t like you. You have your fans but you also have your haters you know? I’ve had teammates have some accidents at night. Mafias and gangs, you know? The smaller cities are more dangerous than the bigger cities.
Where would you place the Vietnam league in the pecking order of places you’ve played?
It would be below the two leagues I played in previously. It was harder though, playing-wise, because of my status. Guys coming after me. Every game the other team would have one or two guys on me every time I touched the ball. At the same time, you’re trying to protect yourself and play the game.
So as the big fish in the small pond, you had more focus on you. Think that has helped improve your game, maybe a lesson there for other young players riding the bench at bigger clubs or getting playing time but not that pressure and focus you had?
Exactly. When I was in Denmark, playing there, it was normal. You had the ball, and you didn’t have as much to worry about–a man behind you all the time. It was easier to find space and gaps. Here, it wasn’t finding space; it was breaking away from the man on me the whole time. I can see that it has improved my game. It made me have to think faster. Think smarter too. I know this guy is coming at me once I touch the ball, so I have to know what to do with it quickly and know what he is going to do and beat him to look for the next pass or whatever.
In the span of a month, you trained with three very different professional clubs - in Vietnam, with Arsenal, and now with FC Dallas. What about the training aspects jump out to you at each of those clubs?
I hadn’t really thought about that. It is kind of crazy. Training in Vietnam is pretty technical. All the time it is quick sharp passes, the players there focus on technique. That was something that helped me going to Arsenal, because there it is very technical. Especially in the beginning of training it was all about working on your touch and passing and then we’d go into short games, quick games. The three weeks I was there I feel like I improved so much. You can’t really compare Arsenal training to anything else. Playing with those guys and training under those coaches. It was probably one of the best trainings I’ve had besides PSV with Guus Hiddink.
Even the reserve team at Arsenal runs the same training as the first team because they want you to know what you have to do in order to get there, so we were always doing what they were doing. Their reserve team is not that far behind their first team. For the hour and a half we were out there, it definitely left you tired when you were finished. And that’s six-seven days a week just like that. I got so much out of it.
And then coming here to FC Dallas, you could see the difference, but at the same time training here guys get after it. The pace is not the same as Arsenal, but it’s there. It’s a fast paced game here too, which goes back to technical aspects because you have to be on your game here too. Three different types of training, it was fun to see it all so quickly like that. And it felt good to be able to transition from one to the other because it gives me confidence that I can go here or there and be able to play my game.
What did Wenger or the other Arsenal staff have to say to you when your trial was complete?
I had a lot of feedback from their staff there, the main one was from the reserve coach. Steve Morrow was also keeping an eye on me during training. Basically they told me I had everything to play at Arsenal. Technically I’m right up there, and they saw putting me in there, that I didn’t hold the other players back. I wasn’t a step back; I was right there with them. And in most cases I was better than most of the reserve players, so they definitely liked what they saw and said keep doing what you’re doing, playing like you do wherever you go next. They said they’d keep an eye on me. That was basically it. It could have maybe been a different story if I would have had a European passport or work permit to play in England, than maybe they would have taken different steps, or taken further initiative, but just the fact that it was so hard for me to get a work permit made them want to wait and see on me.
With your Vietnamese background, do you have a Vietnam passport, and would that help you with Europe? I admit I don’t know the specifics of how all that works.
I don’t have one now, but for me to get a Vietnam passport, it won’t be hard. We tried that angle in terms of Europe, but I don’t think it helps. I don’t really know either. People said you could because it used to be French colony and all of this. We’re trying to figure it out.
National team play comes into the work permit discussion. What kind of conversations have you had with Bob Bradley or the USSF coaching staff?
I haven’t really talked to Bradley since my last camp, but my agent is always in the middle. He checks into that stuff for me. I’m hoping to be called into a camp soon. I’m in a good spot; I’m playing well. At the best I’ve ever been in terms of the way I am playing and my fitness, so hopefully I will get a look because I definitely think I deserve it.
Where do you think you’d fit into the national team on the field?
I definitely think my best fit would be underneath the striker or as an attacking mid–that withdrawn forward role. That’s what I am playing here in Dallas, and where I played in Vietnam. That’s basically where I’ve been playing the majority of my career.
Talk to me about GQ?
The picture I have on Facebook is the one they used as the cover for the GQ issue. It was crazy. The owner of GQ saw me out and knew who I was. She is real close to one of my good friends over there, and he basically runs a modeling agency over in Vietnam. The three of us talked, and she said she wanted to get me on the cover of GQ because she said she liked my style and look and thought the readers would be interested in reading about me, and not just the soccer fans but other people too.
What was the response once it came out?
Ha! Once it came out, it was a big thing. Not just the soccer fans now, but the other fans outside of soccer started coming to me and saying they saw the magazine and liked it and didn’t know I could look like that. A lot of them haven’t seen me outside of the soccer field, so they saw a different side of me.
Just girls screaming at you?
Let’s not get started on that.
It just blows my mind that here you are this Vietnam Superstar, and your peer group with the national team or other US players abroad just don’t come close to living that lifestyle. Some of the bigger names at home– Dempsey in London or Onyewu in Milan–aren’t the celebrity you are in Vietnam.
Yeah, I was very lucky and very fortunate to be in a situation like this. I definitely took advantage of everything. From college, to the Netherlands, to Vietnam, it all worked out, so I’m happy with it.
I’d be doing the same thing, probably chasing leagues to all corners of the globe just for the cultural and geographic experience. You’re pretty close to my soccer dream life.
Yeah, I think it’s everybody’s soccer dream life.
If it’s your choice, where’s the next destination?
Right now, my choice. Coming back to MLS is not out of the question.
Would Dallas be your first choice?
Of course. It’s home. I know the players and the coach. There’s nothing like coming back home. There’s options in Europe, but at the same time, right now, playing here would be a higher priority for me. Otherwise, I still have the contract to go back to Vietnam, so we’ll see. I had my year and I had my fun, but we’ll see. It works out because MLS draft and rosters doesn’t finish until before my season would start in Vietnam, and the European transfer window falls into that time as well, so all of it will work out before I have to decide what to do. I’ll know before I would have to return to Vietnam, because I wouldn’t have to go back until the end of January. I’m just trying to see what the options are and we’re go from there.
Banner image from Tin1s.com, and not from the GQ shoot but another fashion spread in Vietnam.