Also known as Nguyen The Anh, Lee was born in Texas in 1986. He has played for many well known clubs including PSV Eindhoven (2006), Randers FC (2008-2009), and the New England Revolution (2012-2017). He was called up to the United States national team in 2007 and 2014, and played the Copa América in 2007. In 2014, he finished third in MLS MVP voting with a score of 18 and his team, Revolution, reached the finals. He also played soccer in Vietnam with Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC (2009-2010) and Becamex Binh Duong (2010-2011). Since 2018 he has been playing for Los Angeles FC, a team that competes in Major League Soccer (MLS), the highest professional soccer league of the United States. On the MLS website, Lee is mentioned as one of the most productive attackers due to his skills, quick decisions, and creativity.
Soccer for the Vietnamese is never complicated. Even without expensive soccer balls or goals, the sport is played with any available round item (even a rotten grapefruit!), and a slipper to mark the goal. The most important thing is to have a group of friends determined to play a classic soccer match. Soccer appeals to all classes of Vietnamese. However, being a professional soccer player is a different story, which requires not only talent but also Sports Intelligence (Sports IQ), and skills. Can the love of the sport be enough to overcome obstacles such as stature and physical strength if someone wants to become a professional player? In this article, Vietnamese-American soccer star Lee Nguyen explains how talents, quick thinking and rigorous training can lead to success.
Lee’s career could not have started without his father, Pham Nguyen. Just like other Vietnamese young men, those rolling soccer balls won his heart. Unfortunately, his matches ended with the war. In 1973, he left Saigon and fled to Texas.
In an interview with Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2017, Lee’s father said that when money was scarce, he did not know what toys to buy his children. He settled on a small soccer ball. That ball was the very first milestone of Lee’s professional soccer career. Lee’s upbringing was strict but loving and that is reflected in who he is today – a determined, independent and resilient young man. Lee has proven that to succeed, you must never give up.
Where did you grow up and how did you start playing soccer?
I grew up in Plano, Texas. I started playing soccer because of my dad, it was a passion of his and he played all the way up to the college level. He taught me and my sister how to play when we were little. A soccer ball was the first ball he threw to us. I played other sports growing up too, like baseball and basketball, but soccer was my first love and was the sport I was really good at.
How did your parents first react to your sports career?
They saw it as a way to pay for college. They never saw it getting this far. They were just hoping I could get a free college education from playing soccer. Once I started exceeding those expectations, I had to decide whether to stay in school and finish my education or go professional, and that was the hardest decision my family and I had to make. This decision was 50/50 in my family. My mom wanted me to stay in school, but my dad understood it was my dream and he wanted me to fulfil it.
Participating in professional sports is an unreal dream for many Asians. Who have you admired in this field?
I think it’s great to see more and more Asians turn to sports and break that mold. When I was growing up, I didn’t really have that many Asians to look up to in sports. There was Dat Nguyen who played for the Cowboys, but it wasn’t until later in my career that Jeremy Lin came into fame and he was another athlete that I’ve really admired.
Do you think that Vietnamese players have disadvantages due to our stature? What are some strengths that can help the Vietnamese make up for that handicap?
That’s always been my challenge. Something my dad taught me was to think quicker.
That’s how you can help level the playing field whenever you are at a physical disadvantage.
When and how should parents prepare their children who are passionate about sports?
Whether it is sports or something else in a work-related field, if your child is showing passion towards something it’s important to promote that within the family. Your family is around you every day and if they support whatever you do, you will feel more confident to continue to practice and get better at your craft.
Other people might be more physical, stronger, and faster, but if you think quicker than them you will always be a step ahead with the ball.
What makes you successful in a professional sport such as soccer?
What gives me an advantage is my technical ability, being able to have a good first touch that gives me time on the ball to make a good decision. My vision, in terms of my passing decision making, and also the ability to finish and create around the 18. These qualities have made me successful in my career, especially being creative in the attacking third.
Please share your experience with the Vancouver Whitecaps. It seems like it was a hard time in your career. How were you able to bounce back?
If anyone’s been following, it’s been no secret. I was drafted to Vancouver in the lottery draft when I first came back to MLS. It was a very short stint there and I got waived a month in during the preseason. From there, I literally had to find a new team and that was a low point in my MLS career because no player ever wants to get cut. It happened when I first got there and I wasn’t able to play in any meaningful games. That was definitely tough but I knew when one door closes another door opens.
Have you ever felt disheartened? How did you overcome this?
I guess I would have to go back to Vancouver. That was a really humbling experience, I think it was the first time in my life I was cut by a team. That leads to doubts and anxiety but I knew I had the skills to be in MLS and I knew all I needed was a chance. I got a chance again when New England picked me up and luckily the coach saw it was a great fit and I was able to have a good career there for the next six or seven years.
You are now with the Los Angeles Football Club. How does that feel?
I think LA has always been an ideal destination for any player in this league, so when I was traded here I was ecstatic. To be a part of a brand new club that is growing from the ground up is really cool, you basically make history with everything you do and that is really awesome to be a part of. I also really enjoyed being able to have the chance to play in front of such an enormous Vietnamese community. I try to get back to my roots and want to help be a role model to any youth in general but most specifically, Vietnamese Americans like me. I want to continue to be active in the community! In year two, we are doing something no MLS club has done before – we have an identity, style of play, and a winning culture. It is amazing. I feel blessed to be a part of that and hope we can bring home an MLS cup for our fans!
Do you have a daily training regimen? If so, what do you do?
Pretty much everything that I do has been planned out by the coaching and training staff. It keeps me physically in my best shape possible for the season, but what I do outside of that I can control such as eating healthy, staying hydrated, and trying to keep stress low mentally and physically. During the season, it can be very stressful on the mind and body. I have found if you don’t take care of your body or mind it will be a very long season. It’s all about trying to compartmentalize everything during the season – trying to unwind and relax so you can be the best you possibly can be.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I don’t have a lot of off days. When I do, my girlfriend and I try to travel to a new place every year. I like to play golf and anytime we get a couple of days off on the weekend, I try and hit the links with some of my teammates. I just picked up beach tennis this offseason and that was a lot of fun. I’m also a huge Fortnite gamer.
Are you married and do you have any children? Will you guide your children to follow your path?
I’m not married and don’t have any children, yet. It’s a tough question because I’d want them to do something they love and enjoy. I want them to play soccer if they are drawn to the game and then I can guide them. But if their heart is with something else then I am going to support that because I know how hard and demanding this sport can be. If their heart is not in it 100 per cent, it’s not something I would push onto them.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt