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LAFC 2018 Player Postmortem: Lee Nguyen

The midfielder’s metamorphosis was one of the big surprises.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Lee Nguyen was a surprise addition for Los Angeles Football Club, a deadline-day trade acquisition from the New England Revolution in May.

31 years old when he was acquired by LAFC, Nguyen was a player known for his ability to play the No. 10 role, a few years removed from a career year in 2014, when he scored 18 goals in league play and was an MLS MVP finalist. But Nguyen was known as a player who could link up with tricky attacking teammates in the build-up, who could create and make his own shot, but who could look out of place if those pieces weren’t around him.

Nguyen asked for a trade in the offseason, and new New England manager Brad Friedel refused to grant his request, and then the Texas native was parked on the end of the bench in his final weeks at Gillette Stadium. Word on the street was that when he was in the Revs’ training sessions, he sat on a ball because he was being punished for asking to leave.

Of course, in MLS teams don’t have the luxury of sitting on a player as important and with enough trade value as Nguyen to punish them for a whole season. And Friedel relented, with LAFC giving New England enough bang for their buck for a player they weren’t playing and no longer planned to use anyway.

So Nguyen, who prior to his run with the Revolution had bounced around the Dutch, Danish and Vietnamese leagues, moved to a new MLS team, and in some ways substantially changed his game.

After taking some time to get some match fitness, Nguyen was slotted into the lineup by Bob Bradley...and he basically was a constant the rest of the way.

Nguyen LAFC 2018 statistics

2018 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2018 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
MLS Regular Season 25 20 1,833 3 5 21 6 4 1
U.S. Open Cup 4 4 313 0 2 3 1 1 0
MLS Playoffs 1 1 90 0 1 3 0 0 0
Total 30 25 2,236 3 8 27 7 5 1

In New England, Nguyen was a player best evaluated by his numbers. In 2017, he posted a strong 11-goal, 15-assist season.

So in contrast, three goals and eight assists, across all competitions, which he did with LAFC this year, doesn’t look great. But Nguyen played defense in a substantial way for the first time in his career.

While he had moments where he was deployed “in the hole” behind the central striker, Nguyen was often pushed way back, part of group of midfielders expected to play a true two-way game. With no player actually playing a pure defensive midfielder role, those who played there were expected to share the load in defense and attack. It was a tricky approach, one that led both to lots of goals and lots of goals conceded.

So if you’re looking for Nguyen to play a lock-down defensive mid role, he didn’t transform that much. But still. For a player known for flat-out not defending with New England (think an MLS equivalent of Mesut Ozil in that department — hanging way upfield, conserving energy for the next attack), that Bob Bradley got him to defend at all, and look pretty decent as a box-to-box midfielder, was remarkable.

And while we could yet see Benny Feilhaber sign a Free Agent deal for next with LAFC, in some ways Nguyen and Feilhaber’s roles largely overlapped. They fit together reasonably well, but it’s possible LAFC could opt to continue on with Nguyen, who is under contract for 2019, while turning to youngsters Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta and Designated Player Andre Horta, who could get more responsibility next year. Perhaps with another upgrade signed? We’ll see.

So the evolution of Nguyen was one of the underrated stories of the season for LAFC. And with so many other players chipping in on the goals, he didn’t have to pitch in as “the man” like he did in New England. To use an NBA analogy, he went from being the first scoring option on a mediocre-to-poor team, to being turned into a fourth option on a good team. And by and large, it seemed to work considering the transformation he underwent.

Here’s a nice look back at the season that was for Nguyen, from his move to California to some of the big highlights he posted during his time with the black-and-gold. Expect him to be an important player again for LAFC next year.

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