The New England Revolution are off to a better-than-expected start to the 2018 MLS season, but instead of talking about new coach Brad Friedel’s intriguing high-pressing strategy, attention is squarely back on the Lee Nguyen saga.
Despite a knee injury to Kelyn Rowe during training last Friday, Nguyen did not make Friedel’s 18-player squad for the Revs’ 1-0 home loss to FC Dallas.
Friedel reinforced his support for Diego Fagundez on Tuesday, telling the media that the former winger “is the best No. 10 at the club right now.”
The new Revs boss has been a big supporter of Fagundez, and Rowe — in addition to his ability to play out wide — has been the de facto backup attacking midfielder. The surprise on Saturday was that the Revolution’s longtime franchise player does not even appear to be the third-string choice.
Instead of sliding in Nguyen onto the bench, Friedel opted for 22-year-old Homegrown central midfielder Zachary Herivaux, who has played a total of 38 minutes over five appearances during his four-year MLS career.
It was the fourth time this season Herivaux has made the bench over Nguyen, while lightly-used reserve forwards such as Brian Wright and Femi Hollinger-Janzen — now on loan with the USL’s Tulsa Roughnecks — have also made game day roster this season in Nguyen’s stead.
Friedel perhaps exacerbated the situation during the postgame press conference with his response to a question whether Nguyen could have helped as a substitute. The Revs coach said that he wouldn’t have subbed off Fagundez, but even if he wanted to, he would have brought on Herivaux.
It was an eyebrow-raising comment, considering that just last season the 31-year-old Nguyen contributed 11 goals and 15 assists — albeit in an entirely different system — while Herivaux’s natural position is as a box-to-box midfielder. Additionally, Fagundez’s flexibility to play on the wing means that Friedel could sub off a different player to get Nguyen onto the field.
All eyes will be back on Friedel’s roster selection for this weekend’s road fixture against the Columbus Crew as Rowe has already been ruled out.
How did all of this happen?
In case you need a refresher, back in January, Nguyen told ESPN FC that he had requested a trade out of New England three times over the past offseason. However, reports have since emerged that Nguyen has been looking to move on since beginning of the 2017 season.
Nguyen’s desire for a new club did not affect his production in 2017. Nguyen played a part in 26 of the team’s 53 goals last season, and he likely would have been an MVP candidate if the team’s leaky defense hadn’t relegated the Revs to seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
At a salary of $500,000 and with two option years remaining, Nguyen is a relative bargain in today’s MLS, and the Revolution’s front office of GM Mike Burns and team president Brian Bilello might have believed they could hash things out with Nguyen. In fairness, the Revs do operate under fiscal constraints other big market MLS teams do not. New England ranked 18th in MLS in team payroll in the last numbers released in April 2017.
Nguyen held out to begin training camp to try to force the Revolution’s hand, which seemed to start him off on the wrong foot with Friedel.
“He opted not to come in, which is something that I’m not sure many people can do in the work environment, but because of that he finds himself 3-1/2 to 4 weeks behind in fitness,” Friedel told SBI Soccer back in February. “He has a lot of ways to come on the fitness ranks before we see him on the field.”
With no word of Nguyen suffering any kind of injury, that argument would seem to no longer apply. On Tuesday, Friedel told reporters he has no issues with the midfielder, indicating that Nguyen’s benching is not a punishment.
“He’s working hard in training, and he just hasn’t made the 18. He’s been zero trouble whatsoever. Lee and I have a good relationship,” Friedel said.
However, in that same interview, Friedel again lamented over Nguyen’s preseason holdout and added that “the players who are willing to commit and put the effort forth are the players who are getting an opportunity to play.”
What exactly is going on here?
Nguyen really came into his own during the 2014 season in which the Revs made it to the MLS Cup final, losing to the LA Galaxy in overtime. Starting with that season, Nguyen has averaged 10.5 goals and 10 assists over the past four years, making him one of the most consistent No. 10s in MLS.
Although he is now on the wrong side of 30, Nguyen’s 2017 season was arguably his most productive yet and there’s no indication that he’s no longer a star player. The Revs do have plenty of offensive depth, with players such as Rowe, Juan Agudelo and Krisztian Nemeth all fighting for minutes off the bench, but all three have consistently come on as substitutes this season.
There is certainly the possibility that a combination of a slight physical decline and the potential that Nguyen is not as mentally engaged as in past seasons has resulted in an overall dip in performance. Given the limited access to watch Revs practices and without Nguyen having played this season it’s hard to draw conclusions about the player himself. However, it is hard to reconcile that Nguyen could have gone from a bona fide star to unworthy of even a bench spot in such a short period of time.
More likely is that Friedel is trying to get players to buy into his system and his demanding training regimen by rewarding the most dedicated players. Additionally, Friedel has shown an affection for his own hand-picked players, and seems to value system fit above talent level. Players such as midfielders Cristian Penilla, Wilfried Zahibo and Luis Caicedo and defenders Gabriel Somi and Jalil Anibaba have all been acquired during Friedel’s tenure and were immediately thrust into starting roles. Caicedo’s emergence also complicates Nguyen’s role as he buzzes around the field, often playing centrally, and Fagundez is more comfortable than Nguyen at drifting out onto the wing.
Given the Revs’ constraints, a common strategy during tenure of former coach Jay Heaps was to focus on acquiring talent at a bargain and then rely on Heaps to make it work. One of the factors in Heaps’ downfall was that he ended up trying to fit too many square pegs into round holes, such as last year’s infamous experiment playing Rowe as a left back to fit him into the starting lineup.
Friedel may have simply decided that he prefers Fagundez’s pace and directness, that Nguyen’s cerebral playmaking isn’t a good fit and that the latter can have his wish and leave. The Revs were reportedly not even entertaining trade offers for Nguyen during the offseason, but now it appears there could be a window to trade him.
If the organization has warmed to the idea of jettisoning Nguyen, it’s understandable that it wants to hold out for fair market value, but Friedel’s actions and recent comments have done little to help Nguyen’s trade value. Would any MLS team offer allocation money for Herivaux, who Friedel inferred has surpassed Nguyen on the depth chart?
There should be some sort of middle ground here. Even if Friedel does truly rate the 23-year-old Fagundez as his No. 10 for the foreseeable future, he is being obstinate if he won’t admit Nguyen holds significant value as a situational substitute. There is a remote chance that Friedel is showing tough love toward Nguyen in an attempt to light a fire under him and bring out his best, but it seems more likely that Nguyen has simply been cast aside by a new regime. It’s hard to understand exactly what is on Friedel’s mind when he has sent mixed messages about Nguyen all in the same interview.
One thing seems certain: it’s a make-or-break week in the Nguyen situation. If he again cannot even make the game day 18 with Rowe injured, the ship may have sailed on Nguyen ever playing in a Revs uniform again.