Long-awaited trade of Lee Nguyen gives LAFC another attacking piece

FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 15: New England Revolution midfielder Lee Nguyen (24) looks to pass during a match between the New England Revolution and New York City FC on October 15, 2017, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Revolution defeated NYCFC 2-1. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 15: New England Revolution midfielder Lee Nguyen (24) looks to pass during a match between the New England Revolution and New York City FC on October 15, 2017, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Revolution defeated NYCFC 2-1. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

What the trade of Lee Nguyen means for the forward-looking New England Revolution and the motivated LAFC.

At long last, Lee Nguyen’s continuous and peculiar banishment in New England has come to an end. Nguyen was traded to LAFC at 11:43 p.m. ET Tuesday night, the last possible moment before May 1’s MLS transfer deadline slammed shut.

The 31-year-old Nguyen, still a highly-productive creator in midfield, fetched $700,000 of allocation money (split between Targeted and General) in addition to further incentives, which could potentially include an additional $250,000 of cash and LAFC’s first round SuperDraft pick in 2019 or 2020. New England are unlikely to reap the fruits of those incentives, according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle.

Nguyen had asked for a trade from the Revs in the offseason after manager Brad Friedel took the reigns, and after Nguyen showed up late to preseason training camp, he did not make a gameday roster during the Revs’ first eight games. It had been the worst kept secret in MLS that New England were actively shopping him. The only surprise is how long it took to find a suitable deal.

New England’s handling of Nguyen’s situation up to this point was far from ideal, and threatened their ability to get anything of worth for their longtime star number 10. They failed to grant his initial trade request and instead placed him in a bizarre purgatory while they meticulously combed the league for a trade. Publicly, though, they maintained that Nguyen wasn’t available.

Their paradoxical activities threatened to plummet his market value. Whatever position of power they could place themselves in during negotiations would disappear given Nguyen’s desire to leave and Friedel’s painfully obvious unwillingness to put him on the field. Most likely, teams knew the Revs would want to move him before the deadline.

Not making an early, decisive decision on whether to deal Nguyen (there were surely suitors in January when the original request came in) or find a way to fit him into Friedel’s plans was a mistake. Even as the Revs have jumped out to a promising start, this situation was a cloud over their heads.

Trading him removed that cloud, but seizing the return they did was a negotiational feat worth applauding. Even if New England don’t get any of those incentives, they managed to secure $300,000 more than the amount Sporting KC copped from LAFC for Benny Feilhaber, another 30-plus creative midfielder. Nguyen is more productive than the 33-year-old Feilhaber, but the Revs escaped this saga fairly well-off.

Now, they’re free to fully commit to their new manager and his preferred players. Their 4-2-2 start has been fueled by Friedel’s new and coherent tactical system, a welcome departure from the ambiguous last years of Jay Heaps. The Revs play as a unit, press high up the field and attack in transition.

Diego Fagundez is the full-time number 10. His early output (three goals and an assist) is solid, and with line-breaking ground-coverers like Cristian Penilla and Teal Bunbury next to him, he’s been a solid Nguyen replacement.

LAFC beat out the bids of numerous Eastern Conference teams for Nguyen, per Carlisle, and will add him to Bob Bradley’s intriguing group of attackers. His most obvious role would be as a direct replacement for Feilhaber, letting Bradley rotate the squad and utilize both. It would be difficult to put each of them on the field at the same time given the presences of Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi.

With striker Marco Urena reported out for a month with facial fractures, an intriguing option was proposed by American Soccer Analysis’s Jason Poon: Play Nguyen as a lone forward up top, in sort of a “holding striker” role. Nguyen has not played as a striker in his MLS career, but this is a reasonable possibility given of the ways LAFC have used Urena.

The Costa Rican has been less of a traditional goalscoring striker and more of a hub for possession (he makes productive plays with the ball at his feet, particularly in when holding up the ball), as well as a smart mover off the ball capable of pulling apart spaces for Rossi and the others.

Despite the big fat zero currently occupying his “goals scored” column, Urena was a crucial piece of LA’s unbelievable start to their expansion season. He has five assists in seven games. His off-ball gravity will be difficult to replicate.

Nguyen is a number 10 who likes to occupy the central channels and play runners through the lines. As a striker, he would add a pure scoring ability that can’t be matched by Urena’s jittery finishing, and it would mean a freer, less labor-intensive role resembling that of Diego Valeri in Portland. Nguyen’s 31-year-old legs would surely appreciate it.

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He wouldn’t be the same player as Urena. Most likely, he would drop deeper and distribute facing the goal much more often than Urena, who tends to play with his back to goal like the true striker he is. Nguyen would place even more of an onus on Rossi to invert his runs toward the center to sustain pressure on the opposing backline.

Those adjustments are worth making. If Urena already has five assists in that role, imagine Nguyen’s output.

However Bradley decides to deploy him, he only adds more talent for an attack that already has it in abundance. Nguyen will take some creative burden off of Vela, letting the Mexican international float around and find more opportunities to run at defenders. When Urena returns, Nguyen could fit behind him with Rossi and Vela on either side in a 4-2-3-1. That’s a scary front four.

The price is doable for LAFC, who have plenty of allocation money in the bank. This deal underlines a desire to win now, in their first season, and make the most of their current talent. They’re poised to do exactly that.