Lee Nguyen knows how to put a soccer ball in the back of a net. He’s done it roughly 70 times as a professional footballer and on three different continents: Europe, Asia and North America.
You can watch some of Nguyen’s greatest goals on YouTube — his rocket from 25 yards out against the Vancouver Whitecaps, his nifty juke off the hockey assist against the Houston Dynamo — and be riveted by his athletic mastery. But if you scroll past the videos, you’ll see something not often found in the dreaded comments section: a surprising number of earnestly adoring words about the 32-year-old Vietnamese American midfielder.
Underneath a mini-documentary posted by Major League Soccer, many people have shared how Nguyen inspires them because they, too, are Vietnamese and play soccer. Others plead for him to play with the U.S. men’s national team. Below a brief video produced by Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC), Nguyen’s current pro team, you’ll find several comments celebrating “Nguyensanity,” which will only make sense to those who know that Nguyen — the most common Vietnamese surname — is pronounced “win.”
Nguyen, a Texas native, occupies an unusual spot in soccer as an Asian star in a sport that usually celebrates European and South American talent. He holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Vietnam, and both sides of his identity have helped him break barriers. After playing one year of college soccer at Indiana University, Nguyen became the first player of Vietnamese descent to play in Europe when he signed with the Netherlands-based club PSV Eindhoven in 2006. When he joined Vietnam’s V-League 1 three years later, he became the first American pro to suit up in Vietnam, his parents’ home country.
“People over there have been following my career since I was 18,” Nguyen told HuffPost about his fans in Vietnam. Soccer watchers there “took tremendous pride” in the fact that he’d represented their culture as a professional in Europe, he said, so when he pivoted next to play in Vietnam, “they really embraced me. … It was basically a ‘welcome home’ moment.”
Nguyen describes his career in three phases: First, in Europe, he learned how to handle the demands of professional sports while also adjusting to the intensity of the continent’s live-and-breathe-football ethos. Next, in Vietnam, he embarked on a journey of personal fulfillment as his parents’ homeland embraced him as a native son. Finally, in his return to U.S. soccer’s playing fields in 2012, he set out to reassert himself as a top-tier player and catch the attention of powerbrokers here.
Every step of the way, he had to contend with certain expectations based on his bicultural identity. In Europe, he was initially seen as another stereotypical American player, and he had to show that “Americans can play the technical game and play just as well as” the South Americans and Europeans, he said.
“I think that stereotype is still there for Asian parents and Asian kids: ‘You’re not big enough or you’re not strong enough or you’re not fast enough to play professional sports, so you should just focus on school.’”
In Vietnam, the challenge was different. The adulation he received ― for being both the first American to play in Vietnam and the first Vietnamese to play in Europe ― was so great that it made him a bona fide celebrity. Even opposing fans applauded when he stepped onto the field. “I wasn’t just playing for my club, but the whole country was watching me and wanted me to succeed,” he said.
When he moved back stateside to continue his career, Nguyen’s ties to the Vietnamese community held strong. He played for the New England Revolution for six years in Boston, where he routinely volunteered with VietAID, before being traded to LAFC in 2018. In Los Angeles, he’s been embraced by the sizable Vietnamese community, and he consistently makes time to meet with Asian supporters when he’s at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium. He has participated in the massive annual Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival in nearby Orange County, which is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside the country itself. And for away games against the San Jose Earthquakes, there’s “always a big Vietnamese outreach,” he said.
In March, LAFC released a special player T-shirt in Nguyen’s honor, with “Los Angeles Football Club” written in Vietnamese on the front and his name and number on the back. The shirt was the first-ever Vietnamese player T-shirt within Major League Soccer.
“That was a really special moment,” Nguyen said. “It was a cultural tee that the club did for me, for my ethnicity.”
If carrying an entire culture’s soccer dreams on his shoulders weighs on Nguyen, he doesn’t show it. In fact, he embraces the opportunity he’s been given and actively tries to encourage more Vietnamese soccer fans by putting on camps for kids in the offseason.
“When I was growing up, they looked at me as more Asian than American. It’s something I’ve dealt with since I was little.”
“All the parents were like — I remember they reached out to me weeks after [the camp] and were like, ‘My kid had the best time ever. They looked up to you so much. And now they’re looking at all your YouTube videos,’” Nguyen said. Some parents pledged to send their kids to the next camp even before the current session ended, he said, and he hears that kids are telling their friends to sign up, too.
“Stuff like that really warms my heart,” Nguyen said ― because he knows the stereotypes the Asian kids are dealing with, along with the ways their parents might be trying to protect them.
“I think that stereotype is still there for Asian parents and Asian kids: ‘You’re not big enough or you’re not strong enough or you’re not fast enough to play professional sports, so you should just focus on school,’” he said. “So when they come out and they’re able to interact with me, they’re inspired. And the parents see it too, firsthand, and they’re able to support [their kids playing sports] afterward.”
Nguyen gets it, probably because he was an Asian kid in America once, too. He ate dim sum with his family every Sunday growing up; he loves pho on a deep, profound level; he was just as excited as other Asian Americans when Jeremy Lin was lighting up the NBA as a member of the New York Knicks.
“When I was growing up, they looked at me as more Asian than American,” Nguyen said. “It’s something I’ve dealt with since I was little, so for me it was no different anywhere I went. ... I just try to let my play do the talking.”