Jul 26, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles FC midfielder Lee Nguyen (24) passes the ball against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Banc of California Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES — It only seconds for Lee Nguyen to carve his place into the hearts of the LAFC fanbase.
It’s been more than four months since Nguyen joined the black and gold, a fiery showman from New England who was known for his shifty ability to create in the attacking third. Nguyen touched down in Los Angeles to a crush of excitement from fans, who chanted his name in the tunnel as he walked to the field for his first game May 5.
The trade was a hefty gamble, a $700,000 transaction that relied on the ability of Nguyen to transfer his possession-heavy style of play to the already vibrant LAFC attack. And it took a couple months for the investment to pay off.
Then came the July 26 rematch of El Tráfico, a game already deeply rooted in all of the hoopla that surrounds a rivalry game. LAFC had a shot at the Galaxy on their home field, StubHub Center, and Nguyen wasn’t going to wait to be part of the action anymore.
It came off a free kick, positioned just outside the top of the box. Nguyen sidled up to the ball as the teams made substitutions. The moment the referee blew his whistle, he launched a shot that curled around the leaping line of Galaxy defenders and nestled its way into the vulnerable top left corner of the goal. The keeper never had a chance.
The fans exploded in the stands. Nguyen’s teammates grabbing him with looks of shock. The game resulted in a 2-2 draw, but the score concealed a smaller victory — Lee Nguyen had officially arrived.
“This is where you come to win championships.”
Nguyen’s journey to LAFC began with struggle. In January, Nguyen publicly begged the Revs for a transfer, telling ESPN FC he asked for a deal three times to no avail. New England remained firmly entrenched in this stance, despite his 51 goals and 49 assists over six seasons with the team.
“I hope things can work out in a manner that benefits everyone,” Nguyen told ESPN FC. “I’ve paid my dues and it gets harder and harder to watch so many players on the Revs and in MLS get rewarded year after year, despite not performing anywhere close to what I have done.”
When the midfielder finally arrived in Los Angeles five months later, he’d endured a full year of contract negotiations and front office back-and-forth. Nguyen was desperate to play — just to play, without worries of where he would end up or whether his club valued his efforts.
In Los Angeles, Nguyen didn’t have to be the guy all at once. Yet he found a rhythm and intensity of play that he easily fell into. And that has made all the difference with the midfielder’s ability to call this club his new home.
“[LAFC] plays with a style of football that I want to play,” Nguyen said. “This is where you come to win championships.”
Nguyen’s arrival to Los Angeles also gave life to a subset of the LAFC fanbase — Vietnamese fans of the game.
“He was the David Beckham [or] LeBron James of Vietnam.”
The son of Vietnamese natives who emigrated to America shortly before the Vietnam War, Nguyen has always been a powerful image in the Vietnamese-American community, volunteering at VietAID camps during his time in New England. When he was traded to LAFC, Nguyen found a new home in a city that is home to the largest amount of Vietnamese natives outside of Vietnam itself.
Vietnamese stars are rare in professional soccer, and Nguyen represents the best of the best. Along with his MLS career MLS, he played in the Vietnamese Super League, gaining popularity in Vietnamese fan bases at home and abroad. As the highest-profile Vietnamese player in the league, Nguyen enjoys well-earned popularity from his community.
“He is numero uno,” Tam Nguyen, a fan who is involved with the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, said during an interview in July. “The No. 1 sport in Vietnam and the Vietnamese community is clearly soccer and… [he] was the David Beckham [or] LeBron James of Vietnam.”
After games, Nguyen often stays late to greet the crowd of Vietnamese fans who crowd to the front rows of the stadium, shaking their hands and posing for pictures.
“It’s flattering, it’s humbling,” Nguyen said. “I know that I’m out there playing for something more than just myself. It’s a great honor and also a great responsibility … knowing that I’m a role model for young kids and a younger generation looking up to reach that level. It makes you play for a whole bigger meaning.”
For years, Nguyen was an icon of the New England club, his shock of blonde hair bobbing and weaving through opposing defenses with a one-track mindset of always finding the net. Now, however, Nguyen is transforming. From the moment he arrived at the airport, greeted by fans in black and gold chanting the “Sha la la la la” chant now known so well, he’s become a favorite son of the fledgling club.
Nguyen is carving out his own staple moments with LAFC — standing toe-to-toe against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and glaring down the Galaxy star; weaving through the Colorado defense for a spin-around goal. And he hoped to create another memory Saturday, when his old team came to town for the first time since his departure.
In the week building up to the game, Nguyen dodged questions about the Revs, focusing on the tactical side of the game. But he acknowledged, with a wry smile, that beating his former club was at the forefront of his mind. And scoring a goal to do it? That would “make it even sweeter.”
It wasn’t to be. That was clear from the first half, when Nguyen was set up at the top of the box and miffed the ball wide of the goal. He was fouled five times and only had two chances on goal, struggling under intense physical pressure from his former teammates.
After the game, however, Nguyen remained positive. Yes, the draw was a disappointment, and yes, he had wished for a win to prove a point to a club where he felt undervalued. But the focus for Nguyen and LAFC as a whole is always shifted forward — to the next game, the next challenge and the next step. The team continues to rumble toward its first playoff season.
“It’s a dream to come to a club and be fighting for the top of the West, with aspirations of getting to the Cup and winning it in its first year,” Nguyen said. “That’s what I came here to be a part of. And to have a chance of going after something special, it means the world.”