Jay Heaps, who entering his first season as the head coach of the New England Revolution, wanted Lee Nguyen when he came to MLS in 2012. It didn’t initially happen, but a “lucky, lucky break” soon saw Nguyen land in New England.
Heaps was still a player when he first learned about Nguyen from his road trip roommate Pat Noonan. Nguyen was tearing it up as a freshman at Noonan’s alma mater Indiana University. The creative midfielder collected all sorts of accolades in a season where he topped the Big Ten in assists with 12.
Nguyen left Indiana after one season, but Heaps kept tabs on him during his stints with PSV Eindhoven (2006-08), Randers (2008-09), Hoàng Anh Gia Lai (2009-10), and Becamex Bình Dương (2010-11).
When Nguyen came to MLS in 2012, the league decided he would be allocated via a weighted lottery. Heaps wanted to put in for the midfielder, but it ultimately didn’t happen.
“I remember saying to [general manager] Mike [Burns]—and at the time Sunil Gulati was still involved with what we were doing—I remember saying, ‘This kid is good. I’d like to put in for this,’” Heaps told The Bent Musket in October. “There was just a little bit of hesitancy because we hadn’t really done that and we weren’t sure what other players were coming through. Once you go for one, you go to the bottom of the order for others.”
Nguyen went to the Vancouver Whitecaps and Heaps remembers feeling “a little bit bummed” that the Revs didn’t get him. A second opportunity revealed itself less than three months later when Nguyen was released.
Heaps recalls being in Tucson, AZ for preseason when he heard the news. He spoke to Burns about acquiring Nguyen, who would be reallocated via a waiver draft. Heaps and Burns were both puzzled about why Nguyen would be released so soon. They decided to call future Revs assistant Tommy Soehn.
Soehn had just returned to his position as the Director of Soccer Operations of the Whitecaps after a brief stint as interim head coach. Soehn was the one responsible for bringing in Nguyen, but new head coach Martin Rennie didn’t rate the midfielder.
“Tommy got the call,” Heaps said. “He told Mike, ‘The kid has done nothing wrong. The problem with the kid is that I was the one who brought him in a month ago. Now Martin sees him as one of my guys. I haven’t been able to go to training but from what I hear he’s doing really well.’”
The call gave Heaps and Burns confidence that they should go after Nguyen. Nguyen would go on to be a central piece for Heaps, staying in New England until 2018. His best season was in 2014 when he was a league MVP candidate. The award went to Robbie Keane, which Heaps still disagrees with.
“Nguyen showed a lot in 2012, 2013, but 2014 was when it all came together,” Heaps explained. “It was pretty amazing to see. I still think he should’ve won MVP that year just based on how important he was to our team. Who is the most valuable player for their team? He did everything. He was defensive. He was creative. He did everything we asked of him and I think he should’ve won that award.”