EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – When Matt Miazga walked out of his apartment in the Dutch city of Arnhem this spring, people implored him over and over: “Win the cup! Please win the cup!”
The boyish-looking American defender did just that, wearing Vitesse’s yellow-and-black striped jersey as he started on the back line for a 2-0 win over Alkmaar in the Dutch Cup final on April 30.
It was the first major trophy in the 125-year history of a club that plays in a city best-known as the site of Operation Market Garden, a World War II battle portrayed in the 1977 film “A Bridge Too Far.” Miazga and his teammates were rewarded with an open-topped bus parade through the city and a song-filled celebration.
“A lot of good vibes. A lot of happy people,” he said.
Now the 6-foot-4 center back is with the U.S. national team for the first time in more than a year as the Americans prepare for a Saturday exhibition against Ghana and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The roster includes many young and inexperienced players hoping to break into the first-tier roster for World Cup qualifying. Miazga turns 22 on July 19.
“Players in their situation don’t have a lot of opportunities,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said Friday. “This competition, not only tomorrow but the Gold Cup, is going to be important for them to indicate where they are as players in our pool.”
Living in Clifton, New Jersey, Miazga joined the Red Bulls under-14 team in 2009 and made his Major League Soccer debut four years later. He became a regular in 2015 and was sold the following January to English power Chelsea for a transfer fee of about $5 million.
At the time of the deal, Miazga was training with the U.S. in California. He flew home to New Jersey, packed three suitcases and a carry-on bag and headed to London that night.
“It is a lonely road sometimes, but that’s part of it,” he said. “You’ve got to sacrifice. You’ve got to dedicate to your profession. But at the same time, being by yourself a lot helps you focus, keeps you tunnel vision.”
Living in a hotel near Stamford Bridge, he made his debut for the Blues on April 2, 2016, in a Premier League match at Aston Villa. A week later at Swansea, his headed clearance of Jefferson Montero’s cross went straight to Gylfi Sigurdsson, who scored on a 25th-minute volley for the game’s only goal. Miazga was given a yellow card 15 minutes later and was replaced at the start of the second half. He didn’t play for the rest of the season.
“When you’re in Europe, you’re in survival mode,” said Brad Guzan, the American who was in goal for the Villans in Miazga’s debut. “You’re out of your comfort zone. You have to fight and scrap for everything. You have to battle. Being an American in Europe’s not easy and so when guys are over there and they run into a rough patch, it’s always interesting how they respond.”
Miazga was loaned to Vitesse on Aug. 31 and arrived four league games into the season.
He made his debut as a late sub in a Dutch Cup match Sept. 22 and got his first start Oct. 15 at Alkmaar in the Eredivisie. Miazga played in 23 league matches and 29 overall, and even scored a goal on Dec. 14 against fifth-tier Jodan Boys in the Dutch Cup.
Miazga made his national team debut on Nov. 13, 2015, as a second-half substitute in a World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He played the second half on an exhibition at Puerto Rico the following May, then was not called in for the rest of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign.
If he had remained with the Red Bulls, he might have stayed in the national team player pool.
“There’s always that what-if factor, but at the end of the day I made the decision I made and I’m glad that I’m doing it,” Miazga said. “Everyone has their own journey. I’m on my journey right now, and I’m very happy with how it’s going, my development as a person, as a player. I can’t ask for anything better, and I’m very happy challenging myself in Europe at the next level.”
Chelsea is likely to loan him out again for 2017-18.
“He continues to grow physically.” Arena said. “I think one day he can be a player at Chelsea.”
The U.S. has played Ghana three times – all in the World Cup. The Americans were eliminated with losses to the Black Stars in the 2006 group stage and the second round four years later, then won their 2014 opener in Brazil.
“I still have nightmares from the 2006 World Cup thinking of Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien,” said Arena, fired after the 2006 loss only to return last November.
Appiah, who scored the tiebreaking goal on a penalty kick in first-half stoppage time, is now the Black Stars’ technical coordinator.
“I’m going to choke him when I see him,” Arena said with a smirk.
Notes: Geno Auriemma, who has coached Connecticut to 11 NCAA women’s basketball titles, is expected at the game. He was a women’s basketball assistant at Virginia in the 1980s, when Arena led the men’s soccer program. “We started together as young punky coaches,” Arena said, “and we knew it all back then. Imagine now how much we know. So we’ve shared a lot of ideas about coaching over the years. He’s arguably the most successful coach in the history of sport.”
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