Matt Miazga to ASN: " I Am Getting Better as a Player"
April 07, 2016
MATT MIAZGA knows the situation.
The 20-year-old central defender from Clifton, N.J., is very much aware that some of the biggest names in American soccer have left Europe and returned to Major League Soccer in recent years, downshifting to play soccer closer to home.
Miazga is moving in a different direction.
“I want to show that American players can come here to the Prem, or to Europe, and test themselves against some of the best players in the world,” Miazga told American Soccer Now from London. “I feel that there is a lot of talent in MLS—American players who can come over here and get out of their comfort zone, see how good they can become, and challenge themselves to [reach] their abilities.”
The former New York Red Bull has enjoyed quite a year: He was one of the best defenders at the 2015 U-20 World Cup. He then helped the Red Bulls win the Supporters Shield. He closed out the year by earning his first cap with the U.S. men's national team. And then he secured a transfer to Chelsea FC, where he made his debut for the club last weekend in a 4-0 rout over Aston Villa, becoming the first American to play for the club in the Premier League era.
“I grew up in the system over there in American with the Red Bulls—in their homegrown system,” Miazga said. “Growing up in America...definitely helped me in the way my career has come along—playing a lot of these national team games in different countries and also playing with the first team at such a young age in MLS, playing with the first team since I was 18-years-old.
"I know what I can do on the pitch so I just try to be the best I can be and continue to develop myself to reach my goals.”
Miazga did not look out of place against Aston Villa, an opponent mired in last place and heading toward certain relegation. Chelsea was resting numerous players who had been away on international duty. It was a great situation for a player earning his first minutes in arguably the best league in the world.
"To be honest this wasn't the toughest game," Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink said after Saturday’s win, referencing his young American defender. "You have to consider also when a real good war is going on how you cope with that, but it's a good first step up for him.
"He's coming from a league that is a bit naive compared to the Premier League, and he has to get used to a little more freedom given to the attackers by the referees, which I like. He has to cope with a little bit of a shuffle, of a push that in other leagues the referee would give free kicks for. That's the naivety he has to leave as soon as possible, but I didn't see much of that [against Aston Villa]."
While Hiddink’s praise of Miazga was a bit subdued, U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann did not hide his enthusiasm.
“Looking at the weekend in the Premier League, the highlight for us was Matt Miazga starting for Chelsea at Aston Villa,” Klinsmann said. “This is big for Matt. It’s a huge milestone to play his first game in the Premier League, to be in such a prestigious club as Chelsea with tremendous players around him and a very good coach that guides him through the process. That’s exciting for us because he came back from the Olympic team qualifier playoffs with Colombia not succeeding in getting to Rio, but comes back and plays for Chelsea in the starting lineup.
"That was huge. I sent him a text and said, 'Congratulations.'”
Miazga arrived at Chelsea in January, leaving the United States national team’s annual January camp to finalize the deal. Since then he has made the bench occasionally for the first team in the Premier League and in the Europa league while also occasionally featuring for the club’s U-21 squad.
Miazga said that the transition has been relatively “easy” in that the players have been extremely welcoming to him. He knew that when playing with a giant club like Chelsea, “eyes are on you at all times. So you just have to do what you have to do which is to play football and focus yourself in that aspect.”
Which is what he has done so far. He has embraced the culture at Chelsea, which revolves around some of the best and most expensive players in the world. In particular he has struck up a nice working relationship with fellow central defender John Terry, widely regarded as one of the best central defenders of his generation.
"John has been great," Miazga said. "You see the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch. The way he plays on the pitch as well—the little things he does which you learn from and try to establish into your game as well. That’s been good. I’ve been getting along with the other younger players as well, like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bertrand Traore. It’s a very good atmosphere on the team.
The talent level, Miazga noted, is definitely a step up from that of MLS.
“The players are better but I was looking forward to it and expecting it,” he added. “I feel good and I feel like I am getting better as a player.”
Hiddink, the club's interim head coach, is also providing welcome guidance but his time at Chelsea is drawing to a close. Next season, Italian national team coach Antonio Conte will take over.
"Coach Hiddink has been a world class manager for many years now with big clubs and you just see tactics he instills in the team. You learn certain things about the game you have never really learned and experienced yet through him. Little things technical-wise too. You learn playing the ball one touch or when you need two touches or when you need to clear it—the decision making as well you learn playing at a higher level. The coaches have been great with that.
“In training they have little talks with you on what you need to improve and what you’re doing well—which is important also. They’re very straightforward with what they expect from you as a player.”
Despite the excitement surrounding his debut, Miazga remains in an uncertain situation—which is part and parcel of playing for a powerhouse franchise. He could continue to earn playing time or he could return to the bench for the remainder of the year. It's unclear where he will fit into Conte’s plans or whether or not he will join the 30-plus players Chelsea currently has out on loan.
On the U.S. national team front, Klinsmann said he will be looking to give some younger players a chance to shine at this summer's Copa American Centenario: “With the fact that our Olympic team didn’t qualify for Rio de Janeiro, the situation comes up: How many of those younger players are ready to feed into the senior level toward Copa America? That’s a legitimate discussion to have, because of guys like Matt Miazga breaking in at Chelsea.”
For now, Miazga is not worried about the U.S. national team or the possibility of a loan next season—and for good reason. He is a Chelsea first-team player—one of the most high profile teams in the world. If he plays well there, everything else will take care of itself.
“I was obviously very happy to make my debut and be part of the win and get the three points—which is all that mattered,” Miazga said. “I look forward to building on it and continuing to work hard in training and developing myself as a player.”
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.