Just in case you missed the New England Revolution's 2014 season, Lee Nguyen was really, really good. Not only was he a player in peak form and the best player on the Revs, but he was also someone who could consistently threaten the opposition's back line.
Three years returned from his Vietnamese adventure, Nguyen manned an attacking midfielder spot, just behind the striker. From there, he worked his magic, put together the best season for a Revs player in recent history, and inspired the "MV-Lee" hashtag. To put it simply, the Revs, even with the addition of Jermaine Jones in the summer, would have not have made it as deep into the playoffs without the contributions of Nguyen.
Now back into the national team picture, the 28-year-old is looking to replicate his 2015 form and prove that he is firmly cemented in the upper echelon of attacking presences in MLS as a whole. Before thinking about how Lee could fare in his fourth season at Gillette Stadium, let's take a look at what made him so special and exhilarating to watch in 2014.
While it would be a stretch to say that the 4-2-3-1 formation was built around what the Richardson, TX native brings to the table, it surely brings the best out of the midfielder. From a purely tactical standpoint, the formation gives Lee the freedom to operate in advanced positions and find the space between the back-line and holding midfielder.
He can drift, pop up in dangerous places, and unlock the other team's defensive shape. When doing this he would float into pockets of space that cause confusion as to who, if anyone at all, was to pick him up on defense. The other team's center-back would be hesitant to stop into midfield, much like their center mid's would be unsure as to whether they should pressure the man on the ball or track Nguyen.
The above heat map is from the Revs' 3-0 demolition of Toronto FC at BMO Field. Now, this sort of graphic is usually used to display the sheer amount of running a player did, but for our purposes it takes on a formative quality. Rather than running around the center of the park aimlessly, Lee chose his starting positions with extreme precision. He operated far up the pitch and just behind Charlie Davies, often looking like a second forward more than an attacking midfielder.
On the day, he played Michael Bradley right off the pitch and scored two goals, but most importantly wreaked havoc in the in-between zone I've been referencing. This game is an isolated incident of Lee's positional tendencies, but from a tactical standpoint it is the exact reason why he was so successful in 2014.
Another area of Lee's game that was massively important in 2014 was his goal-scoring ability. He found the back of the net an incredible 20 times in league play and in the playoffs, many of which were game-winners. The sheer volume of his goal-scoring tally is remarkable, but there was a lot more to it than initially greets the eye.
Often seen making a late run into or popping inside the box, Lee was clinical inside the penalty area in 2014. Of his 20 goals, 15 were inside of the area. Contributing to this was his incredible accuracy, as he struck 45 of his 63 shots on target. The below goal from the 2-1 away victory over the Houston Dynamo is just one example of Lee's calm, cool, and collected finishing ability inside the box.
He collects a smooth cross from Kevin Alston, dances around several Dynamo defenders, and fires a bending strike into the top corner. Houston's goalkeeper, Tyler Deric, stood no chance on the play, which is a microcosm for the Revs' leading goal-scorer in 2014. Rather than panicking when he got the ball, he was patient, waited for the right moment to release a shot, and was ruthlessly accurate.
In similarly spectacular fashion, Lee's creative side was in fine form throughout the 2014 season. He created 78 chances for the Revs, of which 74 were key passes and 4 were assists. Both ranked among the best in MLS and showed how Lee has an eye for the pass that nobody else can spot.
With deft shoulder fakes, quick feet, and a keen understanding for how to weight a pass, Lee can unlock a seemingly secure defense. The below video is from the Revs' 3-0 home win over the Colorado Rapids. In a game that broke the Revs' summer slump, Lee caps off a dramatic win with a slick ball into Kelyn Rowe. He picks out Rowe's run, punishes the Rapids' poor defensive shape, and sends Kelyn along his way to finish off the job.
The three previous points I've made highlight Lee's offensive brilliance, but many often don't realize how much the defensive side of his game has grown since he joined the Revs. Often criticized for shying away from a challenge, Nguyen now is praised for his defensive abilities.
He only won 49 of his 139 challenges, but that mostly is because of his small frame. However, what stands out is how willing he is to get stuck in, track back, pressure the opponent, and most importantly become a more complete player. With that part of his game continuing to grow and prosper, Lee could very well become one of the best all-around midfielders in MLS.
As the Revs 2015 season is taking shape, there is no doubt that Nguyen will be at the heart of everything Jay Heaps is trying to accomplish. With Nguyen, as well as Jermaine Jones and other supporting characters, as the center piece there is every reason to believe that he could produce another stellar campaign in 2015.
He is one of the most creative players in MLS and unlike many others in his position, has an incredible understanding of how to let the game come to him. He works tirelessly off the ball, drifts into dangerous positions, and when given the opportunity fires home a shot with no remorse.
Nguyen will be a marked man in 2015 and the target of the opposition's game-plan, but expect to see a lot more "Nguyenning" occur in New England.