The Kid is Alright and The Kids Are All Right Too plus an Interview with Lee Ngyuen
A VIEW FROM THE FORT by Jim Dow
In June, 1980 Clive Gammon wrote the following in a Sports Illustrated piece on Diego Maradona, the Argentine wunderkind who was soon to sign the then richest sports contact in the world to play for Barcelona…
“…The stadium Maradona calls home is right out of a Graham Greene novel. That night the humid sky sweats out sparse raindrops as one chooses between standing on an earthen bank, with most of the capacity crowd of 15,000, or sitting in a ramshackle wooden stand. Both places reek of sewage. Between the spectators and the field there are a high fence topped with barbed wire and a line of steel-helmeted police, each with a Doberman on a short leash; the other hand grips a bastón, an outsize nightstick. “The ideology of the regime,” a fan mutters, recognizing an English-speaking stranger. Five minutes into the game, though, and all this is forgotten. The stocky kid in the No. 10 shirt, who ran onto the field with short, almost mincing steps, is doing amazing things with the ball and his body…”
Not to equate our young, now green-carded but no longer green Uruguayan with the Argentine maestro of yore. Not yet and, likely, never. At the age of 18, El Senor Diego scored 25 goals in 35 La Primera matches while our Diegocito has but 13 tallies in 30 MLS appearances and while he appears before crowds of about the same size (15K), they are hardly the truncheon-worthy toughs that populated the populares of the late-junta Argentina of Maradona’s youth. And yet, yet…this kid from Leominster via Montevideo is the focus of every eye entering the confines of Gillette Stadium in exactly the same way that Diego viejo captured the imagination of dictatorship Buenos Aires and beyond. Five minutes into the game and we forget TeamOps, the long drive through the suburbs, the Rev Girls, the god-awful Field Turf and, and despite being as far away from the cesspit where Maradona plied his trade as Uranus, the younger Diego and his energetic, skilled Revolution mates can manage to overcome the corporate pomp of Gillette Stadium and turn what amounts to a TV set for the Brady Bunch into a real futbol stadium when they are on their game and the crowd starts to chant, “Go Diego, go…” a sort of uptight New England equivalent to the Argentinos fans refrain, “…Maradona y su ballet.” But, at the end of the day, the same sort of magic is generated, if only briefly.
Later, when Maradona played his first match in Napoli, in a stadium hard by the city graveyard the post-game graffiti on the gates read, “you should have been there, he was wonderful!” The next morning someone scrawled, “what makes you think we weren’t?” Well, the last few weeks at The Big Razor, you have to have been there, it was what live football is all about, such a pleasure to see.
The story goes that the child Maradona fell into a cesspit in front of the family shack in Villa Florito as a tiny baby only to be rescued by a lucky grab at the left ankle by a quick reacting relative. Urban legend thereafter held that, “the only part of Maradona not covered in s–t was his left foot,” where his uncle’s paw protected him as he went on to prove in places like La Bonbonera in Buenos Aires, Camp Nou in Barcelona, Stadio San Paolo in Napoli and, yes, even the old Foxborough Stadium before the FIFA drug testing brought him down. If you don’t believe me, check out the free kick combination with Claudio Caniggia v. Nigeria.
Watching and listening to young Fagundez all those aspects of narcotic notoriety are non-runners. Our Diego has his (…) together, at least as us ink-stained wretches hanging out at the side of the Gillette training pitch are able to ascertain.
The great pleasure of watching a live, real-time sporting event lies in the fact that you can only see what you can see. By that I mean that despite the jumbo HD replay screens that seem to dominate every contemporary stadium one really is left with whatever fast twitch muscular perceptual ability one possesses to discern what is happening in front of one’s eyes from whatever distance and angle one’s pocketbook can afford. Gillette Stadium and Graham Greene may never cross paths, but when I stand behind Matt Reis’s goal, I feel a similar futbol frisson watching this current crop of kids, regardless of the location which is, in my case, the Fort, that position is about 15 rows up, just above the goal and, in the one game recently watched live elsewhere, roughly the same spot at Red Bull Arena while the Montreal away match was from the couch.
So, four of the past five games have been watched live, and even the TV version was so stressful as to seem that I was in the stands and on my feet for the duration despite being comfortably ensconced on Naugayde with my feet up and a libation in hand.
Over the past five weeks, the New England Revolution have gained eleven points out of a possible fifteen; winning and drawing on the road as well as at home, in front of good-sized crowds averaging 22,234, under considerable pressure, playing a combination of attractive, exciting, grinding and god-awful football. In other words, they have begun to become a team that anyone who enjoys the game can follow with the appropriate blend of pleasure and pain.
The kids are alright, and the atmosphere has been even better as they have begun to grow up, and as the stakes have gotten higher, the rewards and rigor of watching them has matured in proportional intensity which makes their prospects going forward, if the “i’s” get dotted and the “t’s” crossed, well, all right, to say the least.
I say this because the run of matches against D.C, Houston, New York, Montreal and Columbus had absolutely everything to test and torture the committed fan. First horrible calls, terrible mistakes followed by a grievous injury of the sort that calls for the eyes to look away while the heart goes out to both the victim (Saer Sene) and the perpetrator (Davy Arnaud). While the seemingly endless replays did serve to clear the latter of willfully attempting to injure the former the sight of the horrific angle of the Frenchman’s ankle was truly sickening. Watching grizzled veterans clearly upset and shocked broke a kind of plane that normally exists in professional sport where everyone sort of keeps calm and carries on when one of the contestants goes down hurt.
When Jay Heaps clutched Sene’s hand as he was being stretchered off it seemed almost senseless to keep going and yet the next portion of the game produced some of the most stylish football the team has played thus far, culminating in a clutch goal from the left foot of the captain, Jose Goncalves who also took charge like a Poppa Bear with his cubs and shepherded them into carrying on productively when every instinct would have been to chuck in the towel or at the least, pull back from confrontations. By any measure, if there is a definition of professionalism, Goncalves’s role on the day and the season would fit the bill. The following Saturday, playing at home, the Fort chanted “MVP” whenever the balletic Portuguese made a clearance or bundled a Columbus forward into obscurity.
As a result of this and other exciting plays the Revolution beat Cowlumbus, to continue a run at the playoffs and we will all warm by the fire this winter muttering the mantra, “them kidz are awrite!” regardless of the outcome on the day Sunday. From this observer, thank you to the team for a truly fun season that bodes well for the future.
Watching one of the last training sessions before the final regular season matchup in Columbus that will decide if the Revolution go on to the playoffs, I was impressed by the combination of high seriousness and hijinks as the team went about its business. As practice wound down a small gaggle of players gathered in the middle of the pitch for what seemed to be a combination of skillful juggling and equally sharp ribbing. At the center of the circle was Lee Nguyen, constantly keeping the ball in the air and the repartee flying. When it was almost over, the group compacted into what appeared to be a particularly bad parody of the communal hugathon that takes place after a score.
JIM: So, were you practicing the choreography of a goal celebration out there?
LEE: (laughing) Yeah, a little bit (but) no, just getting ready the Columbus game and I think the guys are all ready.
JIM: I’m writing about the evolution of the team since you’ve been here. You came to the Revolution last year and many of the current players were here and some weren’t but what for you has been the biggest shift or change in the team since you arrived?
LEE: I think it (has been) the mentality of the team, our goals have changed from last year to this year and the players have been building the style that we are trying to play, it’s night and day from last year. You saw glimpses of it but now we actually have the players and we are putting all the pieces together and we are putting a full game in.
JIM: And speaking of that, putting the pieces together with young players, you are in the prime of your career, you are still young but you have considerable experience and the team has a lot of players now who are in their early 20’s, even late teens. What is the difference in terms of the long, long season, how do you get players to last effectively for nine months when they have only dealt with three and four month seasons in the past?
LEE: That is just part of the mentality coming in and a bit of professionalism. They came in, obviously, with no experience (with that) but we have experienced players around here to look up to and learn from, we have a great core of guys that have been here and played at a high level, so the (young) guys look up to those players who give them examples to (learn from).
JIM: You have always been a highly technical player and you played in a very skillful league in Holland and of course MLS has a reputation for a certain level of rough and tumble and yet I would guess from looking around the league that this is one of, if not the most technical team in MLS. Do you think that is the case?
LEE: Yes, you just look at the players that we have on our team and then you look around the league and I would definitely put us up there with the top two or three in the league for having the most technical players. And especially because we have young technically (gifted) players as well, so it is only going to get better.
JIM: But In a league like MLS do you have to have, to use the hockey analogy, an enforcer or two in order to protect the more skilled, perhaps smaller players, or is that something that just takes care of itself?
LEE: I think every team needs and wants that type of player and we have a couple in Jose (Goncalves), A.J. (Soares), Andy Dorman and you need that so that other teams coming into our house can’t just bully us around. We are always going to try to play football and whether or not (other) teams want to play the rough and tumble game, like you said but we can handle it either way.
JIM: Having played in Europe do you think that the referees there in your experience protect the technically skilled players more than they do here?
LEE: I think that you do see it more over there, they are more lenient towards the attacking players (in) trying to protect them but here (in MLS) it is getting that way as well, you can tell that a lot more of the technical players, the star players are starting to get more calls from the refs which is good because everybody comes to see those type of players play and those are the type of players that are fun to watch and to basically build a team around.
JIM: My apologies for asking, since you weren’t able to play last week, but you were watching; an experienced coach (NOTE: Rick Sewall on this site) in reviewing the game was talking about the intensity of the play from both sides being hindered by the surface they were playing on. That is, that the Field Turf itself caused a higher degree of mistakes in touch and anticipation that you would see on a genuine grass field, thus lowering the quality of play. Do you find differences, as the games get more intense towards the end of the season in playing on artificial surfaces?
LEE: There is always going to be a difference, it’s not natural grass, but I think that is the type of thing that we all have to adapt to, that is just how it is right now, in this league with a couple of teams having turf fields (while) everyone else does have grass. Going into our stadium or Seattle, Portland or whatever you know that you are going to have to adapt to those types of surfaces.
JIM: On the other hand, when you are going to play a team on grass, particularly now playing the biggest game of the year, does that shift enter into any of your planning?
LEE: Not really, we train on grass all year so (while) I think everybody does prefer to play on grass and it is a relief when we do go away (to) a grass stadium and it plays into our style of play. You know we like to play on the ground and play football so I think it helps us to play on a nice surface away from home as well.
JIM: The last five or six weeks, with the pressure on, each match has been the “biggest” one of the season, it has brought out a quality in the play, the games are tighter, they are more exciting, etc, etc. Do you think that there is any way to replicate that in the middle of the summer?
LEE (laughing): I mean it’s tough but MLS is a long season, especially with the heat, it is always going to be tough to play like we do in the (cooler weather) but it is so close right now, all the clubs have been so close in the standings all year, so getting down to the stretch more games are like playoffs so that’s why you see those high intensity games.
JIM: Which are, to be sure, pleasures to watch. Somebody recently analyzed that there were something like nine different occasions this season where a specific call or a particular mistake or play lead to a shift in points taken that amounted to something like a 13 or 15 point swing which means, of course, that every game in the season does mean something but, again, with the length of the season, is there a way, like in Germany, for example, to offer bonuses for achievements during the season, could that help to make the entire season that intense?
LEE: Like you said, all those extras and bonuses do add an edge to a player’s mentality just like winning the Open Cup or doing well in the (CONCACAF) Champion’s League, all that stuff offers extra bonuses, so it does play a part and we’ll have to see how the league and the clubs adapt to that.