HARRISON, N.J. – After committing an egregious error that gifted a goal to the opposition, it can’t feel too good having a snarling Thierry Henry looking in your direction. Especially not when you’re an 18-year-old defender who is still in the process of getting your feet wet in MLS.
Young New York Red Bulls center back Matt Miazga found himself in that exact position this past weekend, whiffing on a clearance attempt to hand the Columbus Crew an equalizer on a platter. But rather than crumble under the pressure and wrath of some of his teammates, Miazga collected himself and responded with the composure of a well-seasoned veteran.
Miazga was the culprit for the tying goal New York surrendered at home on Saturday, mistiming a ball played over the top in the 39th minute that wound up at the feet of Ethan Finaly and into the back of net courtesy of a shot from rookie Adam Bedell.
It was the first major howler for Miazga since he became a surprise starter on June 8, and he would not have been blamed for dwelling on it given his age, inexperience and the ire that it drew from some of his teammates. He did not, however, choosing to listen to the main message behind their anger and piecing together a much-improved, mistake-free second half.
“Oh, yeah, I remember talking to him – in different tones,” said goalkeeper Luis Robles with a smile following what was ultimately a 4-1 New York win. “But at the end of the day I told him, ‘That it’s important in the next 45 minutes that you’re going to have respond. Either you’re going to shrink, or you’re going to stand up to the challenge.’”
Miazga did the latter, just as he has for much of this recent stretch that has seen him start four straight league games ahead of veteran center backs Armando and Ibrahim Sekagya. The lanky teenager, who turns 19 this Saturday, helped limit the space Federico Higuain & Co. had and did not appear at all bothered by his previous blunder.
Exhibiting that short-term memory was impressive considering he was facing the first real piece of adversity in his brief-but-blossoming career, but it was something that was aided by some encouraging words from head coach Mike Petke.
Petke pulled Miazga aside not long after the gaffe to tell the US youth international of how he had made a vast number of errors in the more than 300 matches he had played as a center back during his MLS career. The point of the message was that mistakes happen, but that it is how you respond that truly matters.
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“A lot of young kids would have folded in that, and [he] didn't,” said Petke. “There‘s going to be mistakes, there is going to be a learning curve. But by putting [him and fellow young defenders Chris Duvall and Ambroise Oyongo] in as I have the last five or six games or whatever it is, I am showing that I know that I am going to stick with him.
“That's not to say that he’s not going to come out once and a while or come out here and there. But I believe in these young kids, I believe that this is the way for the future of this club.”
Miazga may not be penciled in as a regular starter, but Petke sees him as an integral part of the Red Bulls roster. That's why New York recently declined to release him to the US Under-20 national team's current camp, a source told MLSsoccer.com, and why he will likely continue to start in Wednesday's road game against the Philadelphia Union (7 pm ET, ESPN2).
After all, Miazga has now demonstrated to having the type of mental toughness that is beyond his years.
“He’s been put under the gun in the middle of the season with a lot on the line in the middle of a playoff race,” said Robles. “Regardless of that goal that was conceded, I think this learning experience is going to pay volumes for him because he’s got a huge ceiling.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.