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Whitecaps Interested in Lee Nguyen; Is There a Point?

Lee Nguyen is a little player with a big name, but is it one the Whitecaps should pick up? (Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images)
Lee Nguyen is a little player with a big name, but is it one the Whitecaps should pick up? (Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images)

On the one hand, it's hard to be upset that the Vancouver Whitecaps are one of six Major League Soccer teams participating in today's lottery to see who gets American midfielder Lee Nguyen. He comes free to the winner except for the salary cap hit, which hasn't been released but seems to be significant; last year there was talk that Nguyen had been offered a five-year MLS contract at the league minimum salary but, um, I don't believe him. The Whitecaps certainly need midfielders with attacking flair and that's Nguyen in a nutshell, and as the worst team in MLS we have the best chances in the weighted lottery

So hooray, free player! A player who can hopefully contribute meaningfully and, if not, can hopefully be traded for something useful. FC Dallas, Nguyen's hometown team, has been interested in Nguyen for a couple of years now and might be persuaded to part with some of that sweet, sweet allocation money Tom Soehn loves so much.

Nguyen has been playing at, in soccer terms, the ass end of nowhere for the past couple years. I haven't seen him score his 0.5 goals-per-game with Hoang Anh Gia Lai, or bag a couple more with Becamex Bình Dương; I rather doubt any of my readers (or any of the Whitecaps staff) have either. So we have to go off the information, not our own scouring reports; and off the information, Nguyen's a waste of time, money, and energy.

Nguyen has a hell of a reputation in the United States and its soccer community has been waiting for him for years. He was Soccer America Freshman of the Year on the strength of a good season at Indiana and promptly went off to Europe, as we're told all great prospects must, where he signed with PSV Eindhoven and played a game in the Eredivisie. He's made three American international appearances, his first at age nineteen. Nguyen's been a could-be American phenom for half a decade now.

Alas, Nguyen's time in PSV amounted to two seasons on the reserves with a first-team cameo, then he dropped a level to the Danish Superliga. He at least played regularly with Randers FC in Denmark, but without much distinction. After his year in Denmark he attracted no serious European offers so off he went to the Vietnamese league.

The Vietnamese league! In Asia, Vietnam's soccer league is ranked not just below the heavy hitters like Japan and South Korea but below Iran. Below Thailand. Below Indonesia. Below Uzbekistan. Vietnam's clubs are not eligible to participate in the first-rate AFC Champions League due to crappiness and instead play in the AFC Cup, where their teams are competitive but not leaders in a competition dominated by teams from Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait. This is not a joke.

Why are we getting worked up about this kid again? Small wonder thirteen of MLS's teams have passed on the opportunity to get him for free.

It must be admitted that Nguyen's done well in Vietnam, but not so well that you'd hurry to pick him up for Major League Soccer if he posted similar statistics in USL Pro. The only reason he's getting any attention is because the Americans can't let go of their former golden boys.

You'll remember Cody Arnoux, I'm sure, who played fairly good college soccer with Wake Forest and passed up a Generation Adidas contract to sign on with Everton. The Whitecaps signed him in the second half of the 2010 USSF D2 season to try and sneak this highly-touted player, who every American pundit agreed was certain to be an ace, into Major League Soccer. "Not so fast," said MLS, "Arnoux must pass through a weighted lottery."

Well, at first the Whitecaps were outraged. Then as Arnoux played and it became obvious that he wasn't second-division quality, never mind first, they became a lot less worried about it. By the same Arnoux went to Real Salt Lake (where, I might add, he has lived down to my expectations), the team could hardly work up the energy to be disappointed. Yet even up until the day of the weighted lottery respected American pundits were going on the record to say "you just wait until Arnoux shows us what he can do."

We saw a similar phenomenon this past summer when Freddy Adu, amidst much hoopla, signed for the Philadelphia Union on a big-money contract. "Finally, Freddy has come home!" crowed the pundits, forgetting that the reason Adu kept falling out of decent European leagues wasn't because Adu needs to play in MLS but because Adu is bad at soccer. Sure enough, Adu's time in Philadelphia has been well below expectations and he was exposed for the expansion draft, through which he passed unclaimed.

Both Adu and Arnoux are younger than Nguyen, who turned 25 this past October. Nguyen's reputation as a young player was that he was skilled but very small and neither quick nor agile for his size. He had to do it all based off of skill and effort rather than any physical assets, and while that's not a disqualification in MLS (Davide Chiumiento is smaller, not particularly quick, and has done fine) it certainly doesn't help.

If Nguyen comes cheap, and if FC Dallas is willing to part with an asset to trade for a hometown hero, then the Whitecaps are doing the right thing by participating in this draft. Trade Nguyen to FC Dallas for some free allocation money and Bob's your uncle. But if they're expecting him to play soccer for Vancouver, or if he comes with the six-digit cap hit we're all fearing, then this is time and resources that would be better spent on a player who isn't a 25-year-old has-been.