The Future - Lee Nguyen
This article appears in the May/June 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
We've got a theory about why Plano East senior midfielder Lee Nguyen is so precise on the soccer field. Why the SchoolSports All-American is so lethally accurate with his shots and passes.
Some would say it's the result of a lifetime of training, and we don't disagree. But we reckon a single afternoon in the living room of his family's house back when Nguyen was a freshman went a long way toward driving home the importance of razor-sharp skills.
It seems Nguyen, whose last name is fittingly pronounced "win," and buddy Austin Peel, then a Plano East sophomore, were playing a little indoor one-on-one that day. This was, of course, in blatant disregard of strict orders from Nguyen's mom, Michelle, prohibiting house soccer. The action was sailing along just beautifully until the unthinkable happened.
"The goals were the doorways on either side of the room," says Nguyen, the 2004 Gatorade National Boys' Soccer Player of the Year. "I volleyed a ball that went sideways, deflected off the couch and plowed into this huge glass vase. The thing fell down and broke into a million pieces. I was a 15-year-old freshman, and I was so scared. I had smashed a picture frame before that and got into huge trouble. I was like, ‘We have one hour to clean this up before my mom gets home.'"
Mrs. Nguyen noted the vase's absence within a month's time and, predictably, punishment was swift and decisive. But it should be noted that misdirected volleys by Lee Nguyen have been few and far between since then.
Just last month, in fact, Nguyen showcased his accuracy on a much grander stage than his living room, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over a Dutch club team as a member of the U.S. Under-20 National Team during a tour of Holland. Nguyen's inclusion on one of the country's most exclusive soccer rosters marked the second time he's been chosen for a U-20 team trip after two trips with the U-18 National Team.
The jump in competition from his living room to Europe is pretty significant.
"It's a completely different atmosphere in Europe when it comes to soccer," says Nguyen, 18, an attacking midfielder who is rated the nation's No. 2 boys' soccer recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports. "We attended a local pro league game in Holland and the crowd was so loud. Just tremendous energy. It's nice to see soccer so appreciated. It's a different class of player there, too. They all train every day, year-round. It's a real physical style of play."
Almost any style of play is physical for a 5-foot-8, 147-pound player like Nguyen. You don't run into many guys who weigh less than a buck fifty at soccer's highest levels — unless they're the guys handing out water bottles or something — a fact that makes Nguyen's achievements all the more remarkable.
Following his upcoming whirlwind summer playing in the amateur United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League, Nguyen will head to two-time defending men's soccer national champ Indiana University on a full athletic scholarship next year.
So much soccer. Maybe too much?
"I've never really experienced any feelings of ‘I just don't want to do this today,'" says Nguyen, who scored 57 goals and dished out 39 assists during his three-year scholastic varsity career. "I love the game so much. If I have a chance to play in a random pickup game, I'll go out and do it. I play constantly. If you want to go far in this sport, you've gotta love it."
Nguyen says his incredible drive and dedication are products of early failure. As a 14-year-old, he was selected to a 150-player pool from which 30 were chosen for the U.S. Under-15 National Team. He didn't make it.
"After being in that atmosphere and then not getting picked, well, after that it became my goal to be selected," says Nguyen, whose father, Pham, and mother came to the United States from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975 and 1984, respectively.
Even now, Nguyen isn't the least bit intimidated about trying to step in and make an impact for the Hoosiers' emerging college soccer dynasty.
"All the kids on the U.S. U-20 team are sophomores and juniors in college," says Nguyen, who joined Jesuit Prep senior midfielder Jeff Harwell as the only two high schoolers on last month's U-20 Holland tour. "It's given me a head start on what it's going to be like. It gives me confidence to be able to hang with these guys. I think I can make an impact next year, and I hope I can help win another championship."
Given Nguyen's talent, that's not an unreasonable outlook.
"I'll tell you something very, very amazing and incredible about Lee," says Hassan Nazari, 49, who is Nguyen's club coach with the Dallas Texans. "You see a lot of players who can dribble, pass and shoot, but not many as clever as Lee. A lot of people know how to do certain things on the field. Lee knows when to do them."
Nguyen's explosive ability with the ball at his feet allows him to draw multiple defenders, then create for himself or teammates off the dribble.
"This year, I saw him boxed in by three players and he beat them all," says Plano East ninth-year head coach Rick Woodard, 39. "As a junior during the postseason, he had a kid marking him like a glove. The one time he got into a little open space, Lee made a move, the kid tripped over his own feet, Lee crossed and we scored."
"He recognizes situations and gets people around him involved," adds Nazari, who was a member of Iran's 1976 Olympic team and 1978 World Cup squad. "His vision is incredible, which makes him very unpredictable."
For a 147-pound goal scorer, unpredictability is almost a requirement. But can speed and vision and ball skills take Nguyen all the way to where he wants to end up?
"It's always been my goal to play with the national team and play pro soccer in Europe and play in a World Cup," says Nguyen. "That's the ultimate."
For his part, Nazari thinks that's a possibility.
"He definitely has a chance to play in a World Cup," says Nazari. "He's already excelling for our best teams at the highest levels. I can see him playing the pro game in Spain or Holland some day as well. His game is very well suited for that. It's been a joy to watch."
Easy for him to say. It wasn't his vase that Nguyen broke.