The best of both worlds

Relatively anonymous in the U.S., Lee Nguyen is a beloved celebrity in Vietnam

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the May 19 game against the Houston Dynamo

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Lee Nguyen strolls through the streets of downtown Boston unnoticed, just another 20-something trying to get from here to there. When he pops into a local restaurant for lunch, he waits patiently to be seated along with the rest of the afternoon rush. The staff doesn’t recognize him. He’s just another customer.

Of course, this doesn’t sound unusual. It’s the typical life of a professional soccer player in the United States, largely anonymous amongst the masses. But this isn’t the life Nguyen came to know during a two-and-a-half-year stint in the Vietnamese V-League from 2009-11.

“I tell him this isn’t Vietnam,” cracks childhood friend and current New England Revolution teammate Stephen McCarthy. “He’s in America now.”

Nguyen was an A-list celebrity in Vietnam, unable to walk down the streets of Ho Chi Minh City without adoring fans snapping photographs or asking for an autograph. He always received what he called “first-class treatment” at restaurants and clubs, while his name regularly appeared in the gossip pages of magazines and newspapers.

Much of the intrigue was derived from Nguyen’s background both personally and professionally. Both of Nguyen’s parents – Michelle and Pham – were born in Vietnam, but Lee himself was born and raised outside Dallas, Texas, making him the first American to play in the V-League. Nguyen’s pedigree was also extraordinary for the relatively modest league as he boasted a two-year stint with Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven on his résumé.

“That was one of the things I had to get used to, because I didn’t think I was such a big deal to them over there. But soccer’s real big,” said Nguyen. “I didn’t really understand. I knew I had a pretty big name there, but you really don’t know until you go there and see the people, their reactions and how they were when I stepped on the field and when I was in the city.

“It’s always nice to get recognized,” Nguyen admitted. “It was a good feeling to know that they appreciated what you do. The fans loved it and I appreciate everything they did for me over there.”

Nguyen’s fame came with a bit of fortune – “At that point it was good financially for me; it helped security,” he said – and along with the lifestyle came perks: cooks, maids and a personal stylist. He even had his own driver. (“He had to get the personal driver after he hit four people on bikes with his car,” jokes McCarthy. “Then he got the personal driver.”)

But as much as Nguyen enjoyed the benefits of a celebrity lifestyle in Vietnam, he’s content with the less heralded life he currently leads in the United States. Nguyen left his parents’ homeland in June 2011 and began pursuing other options, eventually signing with MLS in December. He landed briefly in the Pacific Northwest with the Vancouver Whitecaps before ultimately making his way to New England.

“It’s nice,” Nguyen said of living stateside in relative anonymity. “You get your time to yourself. A little peace. (But) I definitely will cherish that moment [in Vietnam].”

Nguyen cherishes it so much, in fact, that he encouraged fellow American players to try their luck in the growing V-League. Although Nguyen was the first American to ply his trade in Vietnam, others have since followed suit, and the 25-year-old hopes it’s a trend which continues into the future.

“It was great to see after [I arrived] that more Americans were trying to come over,” Nguyen said. “There were a couple Americans that were able to stick it out over there for a little bit and it was great to see that. Hopefully more Americans will go over.”

While Nguyen reminisces fondly about his unique experiences in Vietnam, he speaks just as excitedly about the welcome reception he’s received from Revolution fans who’ve quickly come to appreciate his deadly combination of skill and creativity.

Twitter has proven an invaluable tool for Nguyen to connect with his newest fans – most of whom have latched onto puns playing off the pronunciation of his last name, “win” – and the midfielder credits the warm response with aiding his ease of transition into MLS.

“The fans here, they’ve been great,” he said. “Since the first day I’ve been here, they’ve been welcoming. I just think it’s great how big MLS and how big soccer’s been getting in the States and that more and more American fans are following us.”

But will MLS players one day reach the level of popularity Nguyen achieved in Vietnam? Will they be recognized on the street?

“That would be awesome,” Nguyen said. “I think everybody here wants that.”