After 1. FC Heidenheim's promotion, Maloney talks Bundesliga survival, and USMNT hopes
July 27, 2023
THE PRESEASON for Bundesliga clubs is underway and for 1. FC Heidenheim, the goal is simple – to remain in the top tier. The task won’t be easy, but the club is hoping that in remaining true to the principles which guided the club to the point, it will allow them to compete with Germany’s biggest clubs.
Lennard Maloney, 23, was part of the club’s historic rise. Acquired last summer on a free move from Borussia Dortmund, the American defender converted to the defensive midfield position and played 2640 minutes over 33 appearance the successful promotion campaign.
The promotion to the top tier was the first in the club’s history and it was just in 2014 when Heidenheim moved to the 2.Budesliga for the first time. At the end of the 2019/20 season, it nearly achieved promotion but fell to Werder Bremen in the playoff on the away goals tiebreaker. But three years later, promotion was finally achieved.
“It’s the Bundesliga,” Maloney told American Soccer Now. “It's a pretty big thing. Pretty big adventure that's coming up. All that I'm thinking about is playing in the first league and being happy to have that dream that you have as a kid which is now coming through, finally.”
For Maloney, it will not be his first time in the Bundesliga. Prior to last season, he had been with Borussia Dortmund’s second team but made two brief first team appearances late in games. But now he will have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully as a member of the team’s core from last year.
“Those two short appearances for the first team from Dortmund were an honor and was a big thing,” he said. “But this time it's different because you actually helped the whole team to get promoted to first league and you actually took part in all that history that happened last year… I think what's coming now is even bigger.”
The way in which Heidenheim earned promotion was dramatic, to say the least. Playing away to Jahn Regensburg on the final matchday of the 2.Bundesliga season, Heidenheim needed a win plus other results to break their way – which happened.
Trailing by two goals, Heidenheim scored twice in stoppage time, including a 99th-minute winner from Tim Kleindienst which moved Heidenheim from third place, and a spot in the playoff-bound, all the way past Darmstadt and Hamburg to the top of the table and automatic promotion.
One of the reasons why Heidenheim had so much stoppage time in that final matchday was because of Maloney. The American was not on the field for the dramatic conclusion of the game because in the 55th he was knocked unconscious after a tough collision, forcing play to be halted for an extended period and also forcing a significant amount of stoppage time where the incredible drama occurred.
“I spent almost the whole second half on the on the bench,” Maloney recalled. “There's no right way to explain watching the end because that feeling was just different and extraordinary. When we equalized, I started getting emotional - like, Oh my God, we can actually do it. When we scored, I was just sitting there starting to get wet eyes and started to cry because yeah, we actually did it. I couldn't really move in that first moment because I was still kind of knocked out. I started to come back when the glasses of champagne were coming up.”
“When I first came here, I thought, okay, you're getting into a second league team,” he added. “Of course, you played third league for Dortmund's second team, but it's still something different playing in the second highest league. And I think everything that happened was not a surprise, but you didn't really think about the way it happened. Last season was a blast with everything that happened last season. Hard work pays off.”
Maloney is likely to be tasked with playing defensive midfield for Heidenheim this season and it will likely come with a lot of responsibility against better opponents. But Maloney is also more comfortable playing the position after he learned the position just last year.
Prior to him signing for Heidenheim, long-time Heidenheim coach Frank Schmidt had discussions with Maloney about what position would work best. Maloney was expecting to play in the backline and did not expect to be playing in the midfield. But Schmidt, a defender during his playing days, opted to try Maloney as the defensive midfielder. The eventual switch worked out and surpassed expectations with Maloney adding to his skillet in the process.
“The coach asked me what I would be able to play and I told him I already played everything on the back, so you can put me where you want,” Maloney explained. “If you put me on the right back position, I'm not the fastest, but I'll do it in the best way I can. He came to me, ahead of the Hannover game where one of our midfielders got injured during the week and he said we want to try something. That game was pretty good. From there, every minute I got more in midfield was making me better. I've learned a lot - like getting more comfortable with the ball and seeing more space and passing and where you have to pass and stuff like that. But I think putting me in midfield was a good thing because one of my strengths is running and chasing the opponent. I think he made the right move.”
Coming into this season, a lot has been made over Heidenheim’s unexpected rise. SWR’s headline on the team’s rise was “Little Town, Big Club.” While the Associated Press ran a story with the headline: “How Heidenheim, town of 50,000, rose from fifth tier to the Bundesliga in 20 years.”
Not surprisingly, many pundits in Germany are expecting Heidenheim to be a favorite to be relegated. But many of those around the team are quick to point out the team’s mentality that starts with Schmidt – who has been the team’s head coach since 2007.
“1. FC Heidenheim has developed an extraordinary mentality in the last years,” Schmidt said.
“It’s indescribable what kind of coach we have. We couldn’t have done it without him,” club chief executive Holger Sanwald (who has been with the club since its amateur days in 1995) to The AP. “I offer him a statue, he doesn’t want it. I offer him a contract till retirement, he doesn’t want it — that’s Frank.”
Maloney acknowledges the skepticism some people have about the club’s chances but also believes such sentiment fails to realize the team’s positive culture and the belief that the players and coach have in each other.
“I think every match that we have this coming season is an opportunity for us because a lot of opponents will probably think it's Heidenheim, we'll kick their ass,” Maloney said with a chuckle before becoming serious. “If we just play our football or a style of football - we'll see where will land. Of course, our approach, our priority number one is staying in the league and doing everything to stay in the Bundesliga.”
“We know what kind of club we are,” he added. “We aren't the big club with the big money but we're big as a team, and we know where we came from. We know what we're able to do.”
For Maloney, there is also the possibility of playing with U.S. national team. Now that he is in the Bundesliga, it becomes even more of a real possibility. He was born in Berlin, when his American father served in the United States Air Force. While in Kenya, he was taking a commercial flight and met Lennard’s mother, a German national, who was the flight attendant.
With his dual nationality, he represented both countries at the youth levels. In 2017, he played in friendlies for Germany’s U-18 and U-19 teams. In 2018, he participated in two camps with the U.S. U-20 team.
But, for him the big goal is to play with the full U.S. team and he continues to regularly watch the team play on television. But with his success at Heidenheim, he hope it leads to his first cap.
“Everybody says it and I mean it too - it's an honor to play for your country,” Maloney said. “When we won that last game, it was one of my first thoughts, too. The World Cup is coming up soon. What better way could there be than playing in your own country in front of your family and friends? It is also a goal that I have to play for the United States. I'd be more than honored to get that call and step into the plane, fly over. But in the end, the coach decides. If he needs me, I'll be there. Otherwise, I'll just keep watching all the games.”