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Jun 3, 2006

The next big thing

This young American has rebuffed overtures from professional clubs as a teenager. His guile, speed, and tactical awareness offset his diminutive stature. He's got a deep bag of flicks and is projected to be an offensive force on the U.S. national team for the next decade.

And he's not Freddy Adu.

His name is Lee Nguyen. And although he wasn't in consideration for this year's World Cup roster, he's poised to spend the next three years developing his attacking skills in one of soccer's dream positions.

The 19-year-old from Texas is just now wrapping up his first half-season of professional soccer with Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven. After a stellar freshman season for Indiana in 2005 and with a number of suitors knocking on his door, he chose to leave school and cast his lot with PSV, signing a three-and-a-half year contract in January.

"Some people said I should have stayed another year; some people said I should have not gone to college," said Nguyen. ""Look where I am at now. I made it to PSV on my first trial and not a lot of people can say they could do that."

PSV Coach Guus Hiddink, who noticed Nguyen at the World Youth Championships in the Netherlands, is grooming the youngster to play wing in his 4-3-3 system. PSV's system is designed to give the wing players unlimited chances to take their defenders one-on-one in the attacking third of the field, making it perfectly suited for Nguyen, who likes "going at people and beating them."

It's also the same position played by current national team standout DaMarcus Beasley, who boasts a similar skill set to Nguyen and has been helping the youngster with the transition to professional soccer.

Beasley and Nguyen live in the same housing complex in dreary Eindhoven and the veteran has generally taken the teenager under his -- excuse the pun -- wing.

"He pretty much was the big thing that helped me adjust to the culture here," said Nguyen. "He showed me around and helped me adjust to the lifestyle here. He just gave me input on how to adjust and how to be ready for whatever comes up.

"He was like a big brother -- he took care of me. I hang out with him more than anyone else over here."

Beasley also gave Nguyen his first shot to play with the senior team, yielding his position to Nguyen in the second-half of an Eredivisie game against Heracles Almelo on February 11th. In his short stint that night, Nguyen drew appreciative ovations from the home crowd for his dangerous attacking runs.

Although he is playing primarily with the reserves this season, Nguyen's goal to play regularly for the first team next year seems likely. Based on his progress it seems likely and for Nguyen, who seems pleased with his "first real job".

"I don't regret what I did -- I think I made the right move," Nguyen said. "I did what I needed to do in one year in college and now here I am playing for PSV."

The spotlight's been on Nguyen ever since a superb turn for his club team, the Dallas Texans, in the Disney tournament. He followed that performance by being named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year, becoming one of the most sought-after soccer players in America.

Professional soccer directly after high school was an option Nguyen eschewed, choosing instead to accept a soccer scholarship to Indiana University.

"I had no intentions of going pro after high school," Nguyen said. "I know there were MLS teams that were interested in me and I heard a couple of teams in Europe that wanted to see more of me.

"I decided to go to college for a year and then see what's out there."

Nguyen showed no trouble adjusting to the more physical nature of the college game, excelling from the beginning. Soccer Times and Soccer America both named him their national Freshman of the Year on the strength of his five-goal, 12-assist campaign in autumn of 2005.

And then after the college season ended, the phone began to ring again.

"After the first year of college, agents started calling and telling me a lot of MLS teams were interested. I was more interested in going overseas and then that's when they were looking for teams that were interested in me overseas."

He chose to fly out to the Netherlands after the college season for a quick trial with PSV, who were just about to break for the winter. A short time later, he was offered a contract after another week-long trial.

"(Hiddink) had me training with the first team to see how I would fit in with the team and if I could handle the speed of play," Nguyen said. "From there, I had a good showing and Guus said, 'We definitely like what we saw.'"

Many believe Nguyen will have a positive impact on U.S. soccer in the years to come. According to Columbus Crew coach Sigi Schmid, who coached Nguyen at the World Youth Championships, one of the hardest puzzles for future U.S. coaches to solve will be getting Landon Donovan, Beasley, and Nguyen all on the field at the same time.

"He is confident, arrogant, cocky in a good way," said Schmid. "He believes in his ability and he carries that belief on to the field with him.

"He believes he is going to succeed no matter who he plays against and who he is up against and that makes him a good player."

Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at andrewwinner@gmail.com