Commentary / The search for a No. 10 / Union

Is Lee Nguyen the Union’s missing piece?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of posts this MLS preseason focusing on the Union’s major question mark, their search for a No. 10 creative attacking midfielder. 

After requesting to be traded earlier this offseason, New England Revolution attacking midfielder Lee Nguyen failed to appear at the club’s first day of training. After the club announced a “zero-tolerance policy” for Nguyen’s behavior, the situation in New England seems hostile, unstable, and uncertain.

Philadelphia Union should make a move.

The perfect fit

For the moment, forget any questions of financial implications or age or “Do we want someone who doesn’t honor a contract?” Tactically speaking, Nguyen is the type of player the Union need.

Philadelphia Union fans know all too well how desperately their club needs a quality attacking midfielder in the center. The lack of a true no. 10 last season kept the Union out of the playoffs, and though the club has made headlines in recent days with their signing of winger David Accam, no No. 10 has yet been signed. The addition of Accam alone is likely insufficient to push the Union into playoff qualification, and according to ExtraTime Radio’s David Gass, even Earnie Stewart has said that the club will still sign an attacking midfielder. Nguyen, a former MLS MVP finalist and U.S. international, checks all the necessary boxes.

Perhaps more than anything, the 2017 Philadelphia Union needed someone who could make that key pass in the final third of the field. Ilsinho will always be good for dazzling moves and creative combinations, but he can’t deliver that lethal through ball consistently. C.J. Sapong had a career year but created those goals almost entirely through his own physicality. Haris Medunjanin passes more accurately than any player in Union history, but he sits mostly as a deep-lying no. 6.

Nguyen, on the other hand, was good for 15 assists last year, third in the league behind only champion Toronto FC’s Victor Vazquez (16 assists) and “Mr. Assists” himself, Sacha Kljestan (17). According to WhoScored.com, Nguyen also averaged 2.5 key passes per game, fourth in the league behind a trio of elite attacking midfielders: Dallas’s Mauro Díaz, Portland’s Diego Valeri, and Kljestan.

Simply put, when Nguyen gets the ball in the middle, he can deliver that slicing through ball or the right key pass on par with some of the best in MLS. With C.J. Sapong and the addition of David Accam, both of whom had record scoring seasons last year, Nguyen’s delivery would super-charge the Union’s attack.

Nguyen has no trouble finding the back of the net himself either. Grabbing 11 goals last season and averaging 9.2 over his last five seasons, Nguyen is a threat in the attacking third. While Sapong was forced to fight for the ball himself last season, a scoring threat like Nguyen at the 10 would ease defensive pressure on Sapong, creating more space and more opportunities.

But Nguyen is truly a perfect fit because of how he would help Medunjanin. Without a creative no. 10 last season, Medunjanin’s accurate passing through the middle rarely led to goals, and defenses were able to focus on stopping his distribution to the wings.

With defenses forced to focus on Nguyen in the middle, and Accam and Fafa Picault slicing on the wings, Medunjanin could choose to deliver one of his magnificent passes to one of the wingers on the outside. Should Accam and Picault both be covered, then Medunjanin should be able to find Nguyen, who could in turn deliver his own key pass or create an opportunity for himself. That’s how a team builds from the back.

Older, but not ancient

Nguyen is 31 years old. He will be closer to 32 by the start of the season. He is by no means a young prospect, but he is also not at the point where a player’s skills decline rapidly. With teenage CAM Anthony Fontana clearly embedded in the Union’s future plans, Nguyen is at the perfect stage in his career to make an immediate impact on the pitch and help Fontana grow as a player.

The veteran Nguyen offers Fontana a learning opportunity and playing opportunities through roster rotation, and he will most likely exit when Fontana is ready to step in and take the reins.

Expensive by Union standards, but not within the market

Trading for Nguyen also makes sense for the Union financially. Currently, Nguyen makes $500,000 with New England. That’s a bargain compared to the price of other No. 10s across MLS.

  • Columbus’s Federico Higuain makes a guaranteed $1.05 million;
  • Seattle’s Nicolás Lodeiro makes $1.7 million;
  • Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron makes $2.3 million;
  • Valeri makes $2.6 million.
  • Diaz and Kljestan make a guaranteed $880,000 and $787,000, respectively, but frankly they are underpaid given their production.

As for transfer fees, Valeri, Lodeiro, and Almiron cost their clubs almost $3 million, almost $6 million, and roughly $9 million respectively. Given the market, Philadelphia should at least make an offer of $1-2 million for Nguyen.

Yes, that would be the biggest fee Jay Sugarman has ever paid. And yes, given his current contract dispute, Nguyen might want more. However, Nguyen requested to be traded. Nothing has yet been reported about how much of a salary increase he would like. The evidence suggests he simply wants to play for a different club rather than receive an outrageous salary hike.

Do it now

And the Union should find a way to trade for Nguyen now. It is true that New England has reportedly shut the door on any offers, but no competent sports executive shuts the door completely on any offers.

Earnie Stewart should reach out to his former USMNT teammates — Revs general manager Mike Burns and manager Brad Friedel — and work something out. He should do it now, before another team, including New England, figures out a way to do it themselves.

It could be the difference between making the playoffs and spending yet another postseason looking up at that red line.

33 Comments

  1. It seems pretty clear that one of the main issues Nguyen has with Revs ownership is his paltry $500,000 salary. He’s worth at least twice that based on his production alone. The Krafts/Burns/et. al., however, seem content to let Nguyen hang and would rather pay $500,000 to keep him on a bench than get value for him. Or to just give him the raise he rightly deserves.

    I think he’s a fantastic plan B solution for the Union. He’s clearly good enough but he’s got what, 2 years left? If Plan A ( a legit DP-quality CAM) fails, Nguyen seems like an excellent option. My only reservation is that Nguyen, Medunjanin and Bedoya would be the oldest midfield trio in club football. If the union can use the opportunity to rotate in young midfielders with quality, great…. but that seems like asking too much of this club.

    • Agree with all of this. But not concerned about age, if we understand that this is basically a 2-year move. Also not concerned about Nguyen not honoring his contract. He’s just using what leverage he has to get the most money during his few remaining peak years. Can’t say I blame him at all.

      I was agnostic about whether or not the Union should pursue him, but the more I think about it, the more I like the idea.

  2. Larry Guengerich says:

    Amen! May it be so!

  3. Hard to see it working out with him and Haris on the field at once. Can’t have two central midfielders pointing out open men they don’t have the range to cover. We all love chance creation but can’t have a soft spine.

    • Come on, it would be great. We could nickname them “The Roxbury Guys” while they point all over the place.

      “Me…him…me…”

    • Just think of Nguyen as an early warning system for Harris. He can point out the guys that Medunjanin needs to point at 30 yards further up the field. That should give Ale enough time to get over to it…

  4. He also flops at the drop of a dime.

  5. Looks like New England aren’t going to deal him. Moral on that team is gonna be awesome.

  6. Great piece. The argument is spot on. The No 10 has proven the single most difficult position to fill for this and most MLS teams. Getting one from South America requires scouts (which we don’t have) and significant money for a transfer fee (lol at the thought of sugarman paying that). Getting one from Europe requires the same AND paying a bloated contract on top of it. This guy is already in the league, and he is underpaid. Even if we pay him double and send $1 million to NE, we are getting a steal compared to going outside the league. To top it off, he is in the top 6-7 CAMs in the league and there is a HUGE drop off after that list. It makes too much sense not to try.
    .
    I think the real problem is competition from other teams with more GAM/TAM. Look at the comments on the story on MLSsoccer.com about it. The fans from basically every team that does not have one of the guys on that 6-7 CAM list are all saying the same thing: Get this guy!

    • Nick Fishman says:

      I think he’s more in the 2-4 range than 6-7. Doesn’t have close to the same level of talent around him as the others. Diego Valeri is the only No. 10 with more combined goals and primary assists.

  7. “Is Lee Nguyen the missing piece?”
    .
    Allow me to quote Meg Ryan. “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

  8. John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

    Can’t imagine he would even be in the picture for the Union. Ernie, who doesn’t let any information out said they still have one more player in the mix for the roster. That means they have someone in mind and if it was Nguyen he wouldn’t be sitting at home with New England telling everyone he’s not going anywhere. He’d be in camp with the two teams quietly working out the details. This drama just doesn’t fit into Ernie’s M.O..

    • el Pachyderm says:

      To this we agree.
      .
      Harvest moon?
      Blue moon?
      .
      something or other is up today.

    • David Accam also wanted out of Chicago. Not quite the same degree of acrimony, but it was there too.

      • John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

        He also signed a contract to 2020 and the trade happened. Like I said if he was the guy I believe he would be in camp with his agent doing the work to make a trade possible. Do you really think the Union are going to be the team that lets a player sit out of camp to renegotiate a contract? That precedent would hurt low spending teams in the future like the Union.

  9. I feel like it makes it harder for teams to want you when you will be behind in fitness. Unless he is training at home,how long till hes ready to play footy? How much of a bad attitude comes with him? If they get him thats great,but the chances are low IMO!

  10. 1 – Love the move for Nguyen to fill a glaring weakness. It would also show ambition, which for this club would be the first time they have (unless you count the move for M’Bolhi).
    .
    2 – Hate the move when you hear about youth from this team and look around and the Union at that point are one of the oldest teams in MLS. TOugh place to be if the “next man up” crew ain’t ready when guys go down. Haris, Nguyen, Ale, Fabinho all in their 30s. Under 25s would be…Elliot? Keegan? Yeesh. Also, that’s a lot of cash tied up in over 30 players.

    • Under 25 on the union roster:

      Fontana 18
      Real 18
      McKenzie 18
      Trusty 19
      McGuire
      Rosenberry
      Elliott
      Yaro
      Jones
      Epps
      Herbers
      Ayuk
      Najem
      .
      That’s 13 of 27. I expect all three draft picks to go to the Steel, so the are 4 open slots for the Union, 3 of which would be MLS eligible.

      • THere’s “on the roster” and “on the pitch”.

        Of that list, only Elliott is a starter. Rosenberry could be depending on his dohgouse residency. After his atrocious performances last year, penchant for injury and the FO’s search for CBs, no idea where Yaro fits. If he wasn’t GA I believe he would’ve been released.
        .
        Doubtful anyone else gets more than 500 minutes. Najem had 150 last year.

      • Jones and Epps had over 700 minutes last year. I think it’s pretty easy to see lots of these guys getting playing time. Most are either the primary backup or closely pushing the starter.

      • We brought back Ilsinho and Herbers at RW and Accam at LW. If Epps is also behind FaFa, I’m willing to bet he doesn’t see 500.
        .

      • Maybe, but Herbers is also on that list. I bet we get at least 1000 probably over 1500 out of Herbers-Epps-Ayuk.

  11. Sometimes you watch opposing players and wish they were on your team. I’ve always admired Nguyens skills over the years but there’s also a selfishness in his play. One too many touches,flopping,and the contract hold out-i wouldn’t be disappointed if we don’t get him.

    • Dude is getting at least half of what he should be. Probably a third. He’s told them all offseason he’s not happy and now he has no other options. The ownership of that team is horrible. I’d hold out in his situation and you would too.

  12. Section 114 (former) says:

    We don’t need a CAM, we have hoops on our jersey.
    .
    Ownership.

  13. This makes sense. Nguyen isn’t in camp because he is being moved. The Boys in Blue have CAMs in the pipeline and simply need a couple of years to get them ready. Why not buy 2 years of a No. 10 and then let the Academy graduates take the lead. We could make the playoffs the next 2 years, drop off, and then come back with our Academy products.

  14. Phil in Wilmington says:

    So wanted to click through and see “yes.” And that’s it.

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