Nguyen hoping to crack starting lineup
Landing at big clubs across the pond hasn't been a problem for Americans in recent years: Tim Howard and Jonathan Spector found themselves at Manchester United, Frankie Simek excelled in Arsenal's youth ranks and the much-hyped Freddy Adu joined Benfica. Staying there is the tricky part.
All four moved to smaller teams, with Adu now struggling to crack the lineup on loan at Monaco. (No doubt many are keeping an eye on young forward Jozy Altidore, the latest flavor of the month, at Spanish league contenders Villarreal.) Add winger Lee Nguyen to the list.
A former high-school player of the year and standout at the University of Indiana, Nguyen had scouts drooling over his pace, bag of tricks and willingness to take on defenders. In 2006 he signed with Dutch giants and perennial Champions League entrants PSV Eindhoven, which at the time was led by one of the most sought-after coaches in world soccer, Guus Hiddink, and Nguyen was supposed to be a shoe-in with the national team in the not-too-distant future.
Nearly three years later Nguyen is plying his trade in Denmark with Randers, a diminutive club compared with traditional Danish powers like FC Copenhagen, Brondby, defending champions Aalborg and up-and-coming FC Midtjylland. The last of his three senior international appearances, all off the bench, came at the Copa America in the summer of 2007.
"I was very fortunate to be at a big club like PSV, and not a lot of people get that opportunity," said Nguyen, who recently turned 22 years old. "I made the most of it and have no regrets. Sometimes you have to step back a little bit, learn from the experience and move forward from there."
Nguyen, signed by Randers at the end of January, is taking baby steps.
The Texan hasn't completed a league match this season, though a hamstring injury didn't help. When he appeared for 37 minutes as a second-half substitute in a 2-2 tie against Aalborg on Sunday, it marked the most action he'd seen in the top flight since a 71-minute spell versus Aarhus in the middle of July. Opportunity has come in the Danish Cup, where Nguyen has scored three goals in three starts, including Wednesday's 3-2 loss to AC Horsens.
"It's up to the coach, but I've been doing well in training," Nguyen said. "It's only a matter of time before I get my chance. Maybe it will be this week."
Nguyen has mostly backed up Danish international Soren Berg, who is 32 and one of several squad members whose name might ring a bell at Randers, which was founded in 2003. Others include keeper Kevin Stuhr Ellegaard, who was unable to nail down a spot at Manchester City a few seasons ago, and former Celtic and Rangers defender Steven Pressley.
In an effort to see more of Nguyen, manager Colin Todd, a respected figure in the English game, is now using him behind the main striker instead of out wide.
Nguyen's attacking instincts impressed the ex-England defender and former Middlesbrough, Bolton and Derby boss during a trial; Nguyen made two appearances with PSV, so there was no future there. A slender figure at 5-foot-8, he knew how to brush himself off after a hefty challenge, too.
According to Todd, Nguyen needs to make changes -- improve his fitness, work on his final ball and track back. Perfecting passes and helping out defensively can often be tough for speedy wingers. Just ask Theo Walcott, the 19-year-old who is blossoming, yet still learning, at Arsenal.
"Lee came to the club with a decent CV, in terms of being with PSV, so I think once you're with a football club like that, you have to have some ability," Todd said. "He has the ability to go by people. His end product isn't always what is expected, but he's only a young boy. He doesn't like the other side of work, where he has to track back. He has to get better on his ability to cross. But overall he's doing fine."
Nguyen's contract expires in the summer, and he said it was too early to tell where his future lies. Todd didn't know, either.
"Going back to America to play [in MLS] would probably be different and might even suit him better," he said. "If it didn't happen here, and he got fixed up in America it wouldn't be a down slope, I don't think. I wouldn't be frightened to recommend him.''
For now, aside from not starting, Nguyen is enjoying Denmark. Randers is a small town with a population of about 55,000 people, so he often hangs out with friends in nearby Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city (behind Copenhagen). Fellow Americans Jeremiah White and Benny Feilhaber play for Aarhus, and U.S. international defender Danny Califf, a regular at Midtjylland, lives there as well.
"I'm liking it a lot," Nguyen said. "I got friends here, which makes it easier because you have your football and your life outside of football, too."
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.