Nguyen the next big hope
Fellow American DaMarcus Beasley was as surprised as anyone when his Dutch team, PSV Eindhoven, signed young Lee Nguyen to a contract early in 2006.
The only high-schooler to break into the U.S. side for the U-20 World Cup, Nguyen saw limited time, but when he did appear, there were flashes of technical play from the Vietnamese-American that impressed many onlookers, including Guus Hiddink, who coached PSV at the time.
"He's different," Beasley said of Nguyen's abilities. "He can play a lot of different positions. He can play behind the strikers, he can play up the right, he can play winger. Any of the attacking four up top, he can play. He's versatile in that. He's good technically. He knows the game. He's smart and he's feisty."
Newly-installed coach Bob Bradley, who called Nguyen up to the U.S. national team training camp currently preparing for the China match, concurred.
"Lee is very, very good on the ball," Bradley said. "He's very comfortable, confident and technically sharp."
What makes Nguyen such an intriguing prospect is a combination of two things. The U.S. has generally lacked players with advanced technical prowess; the Dutch are perhaps the most renowned country, reputation-wise, for teaching skilled soccer.
Despite Nguyen's relatively short time in Holland, Beasley, who left for a Man City loan not long after Nguyen arrived, had seen improvement from the player.
"PSV is a pretty big team, with guys like Cocu and Alex," said Beasley. "I think [Nguyen] was a little timid at first."
After playing a few days alongside Nguyen in the national team camp, Beasley observed that the youngster had taken an important step forward.
"He's more confident in his ability and what he can do," Beasley said.
Yet because Nguyen has been unable to break into PSV's first team, few are aware of his current capabilities.
"I need to be patient, just to get more experience," said Nguyen of his situation in the Netherlands.
The reserve team at PSV is a prestigious outfit, and Nguyen saw two teammates advance to loan deals on the first team of other Dutch clubs soon after he arrived.
"The top players on the reserve team were me and Roy [Beereens] and [Ismail] Aissati," Nguyen said. "I've seen Aissati and Roy going up. Now they've become first-team regulars. It's something to look forward to."
Though still a top player for the reserves, Nguyen also received constant exposure to first team action in training.
"I practice every day with the first team, usually," said Nguyen. "I train and eat lunch with them."
In many ways, the talented player found it more comfortable to work with the top players at the club.
"The level is much higher with the first team," said Nguyen. "On the reserve team, the players all can play. But with the high level and how smart the first team is, it's so much easier to play with the first team. They make you work less because they're always in the right position."
Though PSV has nurtured Nguyen's potential, he might be better off elsewhere next. Nguyen himself was hoping for a loan deal to another club.
"It might be the best idea to go out on loan and get some first team experience," said Nguyen.
Beasley agreed with the idea.
"After Hiddink left [PSV], I don't think Lee was really in [new coach] Koeman's plans," Beasley said. "He needs to go somewhere and play. Even though he's young, he's there -- he's ready. Whether it's in Holland, France, Spain -- I don't know where he's going, but wherever he gets the chance to play and where he can show the world and the national team that he can play at that level."
Yet thanks in part to the unusual circumstances of the China match, where most MLS players were allowed to stay with their clubs, Nguyen received his unexpected national team invite. He has made the most of it.
"I'm proud of him making it to his first camp," Beasley said. "He has a chance to get his first cap. As far as what I've seen out here, I think he deserves to be in the 18 and hopefully in the game."
A good performance in the China game could be Nguyen's ticket to a competitive U.S. game. Though the roster for the Gold Cup is set, Bradley has indicated that naming Nguyen to the roster for the prestigious Copa America is a possibility.
"Camps like this work in two ways," said Bradley. "It's an opportunity for [Nguyen] to get a little better feel for how we do things and get a sense as to the expectations at every camp and it gives us a chance to get to know him and get to know what kind of personality he has and that kind of thing."
Besides helping him break into the national team, an impressive debut versus China could assist Nguyen in securing that elusive loan deal.
"It will definitely draw some attention and might make options for me happen if people overseas see it," Nguyen said.
Given Nguyen's potential, that final element of first team seasoning could be the crucial ingredient that delivers to the U.S. a vital asset to the player ranks. Nguyen could be the skilled, creative player the Americans lacked in the 2006 World Cup, a worthy successor to Dutch-trained John O'Brien. A healthy O'Brien in World Cup 2002 was the quiet difference-maker that triggered much of his team's success at that tournament.
Since Nguyen plays with an even more attacking style and position than O'Brien did, he could perhaps one day have an even greater impact for the U.S.
That is Bradley's hope.
"I've seen him play enough in the past and certainly know that he has the talent to be an important player for us."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at email@example.com.