Eric Lichaj Speaks to ASN About USMNT, Much More
February 05, 2016
IT’S EASY TO FORGET ABOUT ERIC LICHAJ.
The 12th-ranked defender in the ASN 100 has never played in Major League Soccer, his games are rarely televised in the United States, he doesn’t do many interviews with American media, and the Illinois native is not part of the U.S. national team picture at the moment.
Despite all of that, he is very much worth keeping an eye on. Lichaj has become one of the most dependable right backs in the English Championship. He has set some very ambitious goals and and is doing all of the right things to help realize them.
Lichaj, 27, is now an English soccer veteran after leaving the University of North Carolina after his freshman season to sign with Aston Villa in 2008—a move facilitated by the Polish passport he obtained through his parents.
In 2013, Lichaj moved to Championship side Nottingham Forest and has become a key player for the club. Indeed, he has become a prototype fullback in the Championship: His reputation for effort and feisty play at one point earned him the nickname “The Rash” and he also brings plenty of speed into the attack.
"It is safe to say that, were [Forest manager] Dougie Freedman able to sign another player in the mold of Lichaj, he would be a happy man,” Nottingham Post columnist Paul Taylor wrote last year. “In fact, to put it in more concise terms, the challenge facing Freedman this summer is to unearth another Lichaj."
Nottingham Forest currently sits in 11th place but has been playing well as of late and is in a scramble to make up a nine-point differential that separates it from the top six and a spot in the promotion playoffs. Lichaj knows it will be tough to push into the league’s top echelon but the club has gone undefeated in its last 12 and is moving in the right direction.
“I've been in the Championship now three years and I'm getting how it works,” Lichaj told American Soccer Now. “I just want to do as well as I can so that Nottingham Forest gets promoted—if not this year than next year. The league is very difficult.”
Of all the American players born and raised stateside that are currently playing in England, only Tim Howard and Jonathan Spectot have been abroad longer than Lichaj. Like Howard, he has had experienced his far share of ups and downs. Among the challenges were breaking his foot in his first season and an inconsistent run of form to start the 2015-16 campaign—which he addressed through extra workouts during the first international break to build up strength and fitness.
"He’s been fantastic since I walked through the door and we can all take our standards from Eric,” Freedman recently said.
Like many young American players who make the move abroad, however, the initial transition for Lichaj proved to be a challenge. Some players have famously returned home quickly after being unable to adapt. Lichaj admits it took time to get acclimated.
“The first year I was here was the most difficult,” Lichaj explained. “When I look back, it was really bad. You have to get used to the culture. In the U.S., they emphasize a lot of teamwork and building within the team. But when I got to Aston Villa, it was a lot on the individual.
“You had to fend for yourself. After that first year, I came back to Chicago in the summer and I just ran every day. I made sure I was in top shape. I didn't want to regret coming here and not using all the time I had over here.
“The coaching when I came over here, it just propelled me to another level,” he added. “I've told my dad and my wife that I wished I came over here maybe two or three years earlier. I think I would probably have 50-70 more professional games under my belt if I [did]. I don't think I played a professional game until I was 20 or 21.”
When Lichaj first made the jump to the English Premier League, many top American players were already playing in England. While that number has since declined, 2015 and 2016 have seen numerous American prospects give it a go in Europe.
Lichaj knows well the paths ahead for many of these players. He himself had to climb the ladder in the very competitive English youth system at Aston Villa and then impress coaches on three different loans to lower division teams before he could make his Premier League debut.
When asked what advice he would give these players, he was honest about the rough path ahead.
“It's difficult and I just hope that none of these players think that they've made it,” Lichaj said somberly. “They have to make some sacrifices because I have some really good friends back home that I rarely keep in touch with. That's a sacrifice that I've had to make. I just felt that I wanted to be at home that first year—always speaking with people but then I knew I couldn't be doing this if I wanted to play over here and do well.
“That is the biggest sacrifice I've made, just losing friends. It wasn't because I wanted to but it was a necessity for me to really embrace what I was doing over here.”
While Lichaj is far removed from his days in the Chicago area, he has fully integrated into the English lifestyle and admits he might permanently settle in England even after his playing days. He is married to an English woman and they have two daughters with the eldest prepared to start school in the Nottinghamshire area.
Even in the peak of his career, Lichaj is already making plans for his post-playing days. This summer he will attempt to obtain his “UEFA B” coaching license and he plans on steadily continuing higher-level licenses so that one day he can either manage a professional team or work with young players in some capacity.
And he is still a proud Chicagoan. Lichaj has never played in MLS but is a fan of the Chicago Fire and follows the team’s progress. He is quick to point out he has no immediate intention of following the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore play to the North American domestic top flight, adding, “If I could stay with Notthingham until I retire, I would be a happy man.”
But he does get irked sometimes by the English perception of MLS.
“I hear a lot of players here saying. 'I want to go to MLS when I'm almost done playing,'” Lichaj said with a chuckle. “I don't think they realize how good it's getting. I don't think it's a place where you end your career anymore.”
WITH LICHAJ, there is always the topic of the United States national team. Following the 2010 World Cup, it appeared as if he was going to establish himself as a key player under head coach Bob Bradley. Since Bradley was fired in 2011, Lichaj has played in just two friendlies under Jurgen Klinsmann. All told, he has just 10 caps—24 fewer than Brek Shea and 11 fewer than Michael Orozco.
While Lichaj has earned steady play in the Championship—often to very favorable reviews—Klinsmann has instead utilized many others at right back, including Fabian Johnson, Brad Evans, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Timothy Chandler. All of the aforementioned either primarily play other positions or struggle to get playing time with their clubs.
Because of this, Lichaj usually tops the list from media and fans as the player most overlooked by the national team. This came to light most recently in a recent outburst from Benny Feilhaber, who had extensive national team experience under Bradley but has struggled to secure playing time under Klinsmann. When trying to make the point that Klinsmann often overlooks good players, Feilhaber mentioned Lichaj by name.
“So it's not just me,” Feilhaber said. “An Eric Lichaj, for example. He's been playing well in Europe for countless years, and he hasn't been really given any opportunity either. So there's guys in MLS, there's guys in Europe who don't get opportunities with Jurgen for whatever reason.”
When asked about the comments, Lichaj was very quick to distance himself from Feilhaber.
“I didn't see the comments [Feilhaber] said but from my perspective, I don't think a player should tell a manager [that],” Lichaj said. “It's never a good situation if you do that. He might be frustrated. Maybe he's just passionate and he wants to play for the U.S. team and that's why he's come out… I don't know.”
For now, Lichaj’s main priority is helping Nottingham Forest get into the Premier League—which, he adds, might force Klinsmann’s hand for another call-up. But at this point, he does not want to consider himself as someone being wrongfully kept out of the national team.
“I don't think I've been overlooked,” Lichaj said. “They've watched a few games and nothing has come of it. Maybe they didn't like what've they've seen or I didn't fit into the style that they wanted to play. I would love to play for them again and I've always enjoyed it. I can't put too much focus on it because if I was really desperate for that, it might take away from what I am doing here at Nottingham.
“I am doing well and if I keep improving hopefully I get recalled to see if the U.S. manager wants me. At the moment he doesn't so I can't complain, I just have to keep improving to see if I can get back in there.”
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.