Lee Nguyen has played in Los Angeles Football Club’s last six league games, but there’s a been a feeling most of this season that he’s the odd man out.
The midfielder, a deadline-day acquisition from the New England Revolution in May 2018, took some time to work his way into the LAFC lineup last season, but with Benny Feilhaber gone, the former U.S. international looked set to be the person to anchor the midfield coming into the 2019 season, flanked by the young and promising Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Nguyen has an ability to offer close control with the ball and link up in the zone just in front of an opponent’s 18-yard box better than just about anybody in MLS, and last year, he honed his defense, something he had never been known for in New England.
But suffering a muscle injury in March, after starting the first two games of the season, Nguyen faced a six-game stretch on the sidelines. In his place, the biggest surprise of the season emerged, as Latif Blessing went from a fill-in option in the game against New York City FC to a “Kante-like” force in midfield, and with Kaye and Atuesta rolling, Nguyen’s return to the lineup has been postponed.
In recent weeks, however, he’s gotten more run, with three starts and three stints off the bench in the last six league games. Against the Houston Dynamo earlier this month, he ran the show with Carlos Vela sitting for the first time all season, and along with Adama Diomande fired a tired and rotated squad to a rousing road win.
On Friday, in LAFC’s 4-3 win over Atlanta United, Nguyen came off the bench to play the final 27 minutes, but he brought steady play and a moment of magic.
It was a rousing shift for the Texan, who could have sulked when he lost his job but seems to be locked in.
“Yeah, you see me in the sidelines you get to observe and see form a different view,” Nguyen told reporters after Friday’s game. “Obviously when everyone is out there [LAFC substitutes are] trying to see what they can do and how they can affect the game. For me, I saw we needed to get some control back and regain possession. When I came in I felt like that is what my strong suit is, I was able to strike them in there and basically just help the guys out and regain control and keep the lead.”
Nguyen alluded to the game state when he came into the game, with LAFC holding a one-goal lead, but a fairly precarious one, as at one point they were up 4-1 before Atlanta got two more to make it tight. But his influence helped LAFC get a grasp on the match so they didn’t let it all slip away, with Brad Guzan stepping up to make a few huge stops late to prevent the victory from being clinched before the final whistle.
While Bob Bradley had primarily relied on a core group of about 12 players for most of the season, international tournaments and fixture congestion has led to a larger group of players getting real minutes lately, and rising to the occasion more often than not. Nguyen credited Bradley and the staff for keeping the players ready and motivated, since you never know when your number will be called to make the big play.
“That has been the mindset for all of us. I think Bob, the staff and all the guys we pride ourselves on this is more than just eleven guys throughout the season. We’re going to need everyone at any given time, whether it is me or someone else we are going to need everyone at some point and you just have to be ready, it’s going to be a long season and we all have to try.”
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