Lee Nguyen is presently in soccer purgatory, but one gets the impression that from his standpoint, it beats being in soccer hell.
Nguyen was officially a no-show Tuesday as the New England Revolution opened training camp. His desire to be traded has been widely reported, but sources confirmed to ESPN FC that New England has refused to even entertain the idea. Now with Nguyen sitting out, GM Mike Burns made it clear the Revs will take a hardline approach.
"Lee didn't report to preseason and he's not honoring his contract," general manager Mike 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."
The Revs' stance has been painted in some corners as a way for new coach Brad Friedel to show that he won't be pushed around. But this is less about Friedel and more about the approach from Burns and the rest of the New England front office, right up to owners Kraft Sports Group, one that is utterly consistent.
An attempt to reach Burns resulted in New England staff directing ESPN FC to his comments from Tuesday.
The Revs have long had a reputation around MLS of playing hardball with players during contract negotiations. To be clear, New England isn't running a charity, but there is some history that the Revs take this to the extreme. In 2014, there was a very public contract dispute with reigning defender of the year Jose Goncalves, to the point where he was held out of an early season game against the Philadelphia Union. In 2016, it was Jermaine Jones' turn to haggle over a contract. That approach extends on down to the very end of the roster.
"It's been consistent for years, [the Revs] go out of their way to screw with players on every issue," one source familiar with the way New England operates said. "They will use any rule they can use, regardless if that was intended to be used that way. It's a culture thing, not a practical thing."
Following the Revs' MLS Cup run in 2014, defender A.J. Soares opted to play in Norway rather than re-sign with New England. When he tried to return to MLS, New England still held his rights and declined to entertain trade offers. Reached by telephone, Soares said he can see both sides of the Revs' approach.
"I don't think it's a secret that [the Krafts] are pretty ruthless when it comes to contracts and people," Soares told ESPN FC by telephone. "But they're going about business in a way they feel comfortable. It's a business model that has worked for them, and I think the Krafts are amazing owners. I really loved playing for them. I don't side with either side. They're just going about business and it's normal."
Perhaps it's fairer to say the approach "used to work." The league is changing, and the Revs have steadily fallen down the standings since making the MLS Cup final in 2014. In that time, spending league wide has increased thanks to the influx of targeted allocation money, and the Revs have not kept pace. Perhaps more tellingly, New England has yet to sign a free agent from within the league since such rules were introduced following the ratification of the last CBA in 2015. None of that is on Friedel of course, but on those above him, and it now looks as if the club's past hardball tactics with players are catching up with it.
The irony is that Nguyen is one player who New England has twice opted to re-sign before his contract expired, though that shouts practicality more than anything. In 2014, his salary doubled from $80,000 in guaranteed compensation to $193,000. In 2016, that number jumped to $500,000.
But looked at another way, it's easy to see why Nguyen is unhappy. Since the start of the 2014 season, his combined goals and assists rank fifth leaguewide, with only the New York Red Bulls' Bradley Wright-Phillips, Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, the Portland Timbers' Diego Valeri and New York City FC's David Villa ranking higher. Yet according to the MLS Players' Union, Nguyen's annual salary puts him tied for 79th in the league. Last season, six New England teammates -- including defenders Claude Dielna and Benjamin Angoua -- made more than Nguyen did in terms of guaranteed compensation.
Yet sources tell ESPN FC that Nguyen's desire to leave isn't just about money, and has to do with the aforementioned culture of the organization as well. In terms of payroll, New England ranks well inside the bottom half of the league, and while it's possible to succeed in MLS without spending big, the approach hasn't paid off for the Revs in recent years.
The contrast with how Columbus Crew manager Gregg Berhalter has handled this offseason is striking. Justin Meram reported to the team's first day of training camp, even while he's in the middle of his own trade saga. The difference is Berhalter is doing what he can to find that elusive middle ground between satisfying Meram's desire to be elsewhere while also getting what he feels is something at least approaching market value. That appears to have created some good will for Columbus down the road.
"I know my scenario is very different because of how much respect I have for this club and this coaching staff, so for me it was right for me to be here and to train and take it one day at a time," Meram told the Columbus Dispatch on Wednesday.
Berhalter was faced with a similar situation involving Ola Kamara, who last week was traded to the LA Galaxy in exchange for $400,000 in allocation money and forward Gyasi Zardes. Did Berhalter get full value? Probably not, but given Kamara's own trade demands, Berhalter did the best he could. Now at least he's rid of an unhappy player who made it clear he was no longer completely committed to the cause, while also getting assets in return.
As for Nguyen and New England, there probably will be no winners in this. The Revs are stuck with a disgruntled player, one they were probably better off dealing once the trade window opened in December. How long Nguyen is prepared to sit out is still unknown. Sources confirm that his contract contains club options for 2019 and 2020. But at age 31, and with no national team prospects to worry about, there isn't as much to lose as there was when he signed his last deal in 2016.
For now, it looks as if Nguyen's stay in purgatory is set to continue.