Lee Nguyen spent 2017 almost singlehandedly running the weird and mismatched New England Revolution. On a team that gave up 61 goals and led the league in confusing lineups, Nguyen produced some of the best stats of his career: 11 goals and 15 assists in 31 games. He did this while topping the list of MLS’ underpaid players, making just $500,000 last season, significantly less than others at his level.
When he asked for a trade at the end of the season (and twice more in the weeks following), it didn’t come as much of a surprise. It also shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the organization has royally bungled the entire situation.
The Revs, led by GM Mike Burns and new coach Brad Friedel, did not realize the inevitability of being forced to confront Nguyen’s low salary, and released a tough guy declaration after their star held out of preseason training.
“Lee didn’t report to preseason and he’s not honoring his contract,” Burns told MLSsoccer.com. “We’ll handle the matter internally, and we’ve already had discussions with MLS. It’ll be handled appropriately. We have zero tolerance for guys who don’t honor their contracts.”
It appears to be a standoff. New England want to keep him, while Nguyen wants to go elsewhere in MLS. Training continues for the Revs without him.
They’re not crazy to be protective of a No. 10 that has been among the most productive in the league over the past four years, especially at a position that has gained a reputation in MLS as a burdensome one to replace. Nguyen is very good and has the box-score stats to prove it.
But when a player asks for a trade, there are two must-follow rules from the organization’s perspective: 1) If you’re going to keep him, be very, very confident that the player is all in for the club and will not be a locker room cancer. It quickly becomes a lose-lose situation when an unhappy player is stuck somewhere. And 2) whatever you do, don’t dilly-dally. Teams can’t afford to sit around and hope he changes his mind, because his trade value will plummet.
New England’s reaction was the worst possible one. They sat around all of December and half of January and did not have any public reaction to Nguyen’s trade request, presumably spending that time procrastinating like a high schooler with their homework.
They couldn’t have been shocked when Nguyen didn’t show up for day 1 of training camp.
Now, they have a player who clearly doesn’t want to be there with a trade value that likely has sunk to levels far below what it would have been had they dealt him a month ago. All the leverage in the world would go to the buyer should the Revs finally decide to trade him — although they have inexplicably denied any intent to do so.
If he ends up staying, what does he do all season? Play half-heartedly for a coach he doesn’t want to work for? Sit in the stands? Unless Nguyen pulls a 180 and suddenly withdraws his request, which seems unlikely, the best result for New England would be a trade that at least approaches his real value. It is getting increasingly hard to imagine him sticking around in 2018 and the result being positive.
For frustrated Revs fans, the kicker is that Nguyen is a very tradeable player regardless of whether he wants to leave or not. In today’s MLS, teams are getting big numbers of allocation money and resources from intra-league trades, and Nguyen is 31. Now is the time to take advantage of their aging and disposable-yet-valuable player before he gets too old.
And in Kelyn Rowe, they have a ready-made replacement. Dealing Nguyen for allocation money and maybe even a defender should have at least been in consideration even before the trade request. Once he made it clear of his intentions, it should have been a no-brainer.
Let’s gauge the market for players like Nguyen. 33-year-old Benny Feilhaber, another US international No. 10 aging out of his prime, fished $400,000 (split between GAM and TAM) for Sporting KC a couple weeks ago. Feilhaber is two years older and was not nearly as productive as Nguyen was last season. Sacha Kljestan, a 32-year-old creator, led the league in assists last year but only netted the Red Bulls two young projects from Orlando. Whether that return is indicative of the market price or simply Jesse Marsch liking two young players is fuzzy.
Based on the Feilhaber deal and the fact that Nguyen holds more value right now (given his performance last season and age), it could be reasonably assumed that a max price for him could reach upwards of $600,000 in allocation money. For a team desperate to get rid of a massive logjam in their attack that also conveniently holds a perfect replacement at Nguyen’s position, this would be a good, logical deal. Chicago, Colorado and Philadelphia are among the clubs that would make sense as potential partners.
Instead, the Revs persisted with their irrational belief that this will somehow work itself out. Meanwhile, Columbus Crew SC saw their starting striker and starting winger request trades at around the time Nguyen made his third demand; they acted smoothly and patiently to move Ola Kamara to the Galaxy for $400,000 TAM plus Gyasi Zardes, with Justin Meram reportedly heading to Orlando City. It can be done.
New England’s offseason hadn’t been that bad before this. They signed a d-mid and a left back and traded Kei Kamara to Vancouver, helping solve that logjam up top. The Revs still need center backs — obviously, these are the Revs we’re talking about — but Friedel and co. were on a good path. This saga is overshadowing that. As it should.