As Chelsea career takes root, Matt Miazga pushing for Copa place with US

MIAMI – For Matt Miazga, the past four months have been an exercise in adjustments.

In January the 20-year-old, who is currently with the US national team in Miami for their pre-Copa América “transition camp,” packed up his life to move from his hometown New York Red Bulls to Chelsea FC.

He left behind family, friends and the home cooking and creature comforts of his parents’ house, where he lived throughout his three-year stint with the Red Bulls. He said goodbye to a familiar coach and teammates, a tactical system he thrived in and an organization he’d played for since he was 14.

He traded it all in for a chance with one of the biggest clubs in the world – and a whole bunch of uncertainty.

Miazga joined Chelsea in the middle of their worst season in two decades. Former manager Jose Mourinho, who led the Blues to the 2014-15 English Premier League title, had already been fired by the time he arrived. Mourinho was replaced on an interim basis by Guus Hiddink, who announced at the time of his hiring that he’d only stay with the club through the end of the 2015-16 campaign.

In the best of circumstances, Miazga’s move would’ve been a risk. He had to adjust to a new country, a new club, new coaches and new teammates on the fly, and do it all under a very serious microscope.

With a caretaker manager in charge and an entirely different boss on the way (Chelsea announced in April that Italian national team head coach Antonio Conte would take over the club next season), Miazga’s move looked that much more precarious.

He’d have to adapt – and quickly – if he wanted to have any chance with the Blues.

Miazga knew all that, and he was able to carve out a couple of opportunities in his first half-season in London. After a few months learning the ropes, he made two consecutive EPL starts for Hiddink. He showed well in his first appearance, a 4-0 shutout of Aston Villa on April 2, but struggled a bit in his second, getting taken off at halftime of Chelsea’s 1-0 loss to Swansea City on April 9. That match was his final appearance of the season.

Things were similarly up and down on the international level. After making his USMNT debut in a World Cup qualifier last November, Miazga was called-up to the Under-23s for their Olympic qualifying playoff series against Colombia in March. He performed well in the first match, a 1-1 draw in Barranquilla on March 25, but struggled in the return leg, getting sent off late in the Americans’ 2-1 loss in Dallas on March 29 that saw them fail to qualify for the Rio games.

Miazga acknowledged on Tuesday that his 2016 has been a bit mixed. Of course, for a young player dealing with so much upheaval, some highs and lows are to be expected – and they’re not necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s been a good learning process, going to a big club and learning the ways over there and adjusting to the Premier League and how they play their football,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “Obviously you go through your ups and your downs, which is normal, but it felt like I learned a lot.”

Now Miazga, who said that the increased pace of the game was the biggest adjustment he had to make in moving from MLS to the EPL, is fully focused on the national team. He’s the youngest of eight center backs Jurgen Klinsmann named to his 40-man preliminary roster for the Copa América, and will likely be on the bubble for the final 23-man squad set to be named on Friday.

Making the team would be a significant accomplishment for Miazga, who’s never before been called to a major senior international tournament. It’d also keep him in form ahead of Chelsea’s preseason, when he’ll be fighting to show the club – who have a history of loaning out their younger players – that he deserves a spot on the first team next season.

“My goal obviously right now is to train as hard as I can and to show coach that I’m deserving of a spot to go to the Copa América,” Miazga said. “The final roster’s not set yet, so I’m just going to continue to try to play fast, think quick, play good football and show that I can play at a high level. I’ve been training with a bunch of great players and playing a couple of games in the Premier League, so I’m just trying to translate that over here and show coach Jurgen what I can do.

“I’m not really focused on [a potential loan] right now,” he continued. “I’m just focused on the national team and when the Premier League starts again and the season starts up, that’s something we obviously have to discuss.”  

While Miazga’s full attention is on the USMNT, he will turn his gaze back to the Red Bulls for their Heineken Rivalry Week match at New York City FC on Saturday (3 pm ET; FOX in the US, TSN2 in Canada). Miazga was the hero in the lone Hudson River Derby played at Yankee Stadium in 2015, scoring the final goal – then miming a home run swing – in the Red Bulls’ 3-1 win in the Bronx last June.

It’s been strange for Miazga, who still talks regularly with Red Bulls Luis Robles and Sean Davis, to watch his former club struggle this year. Watching them take on their New York City rivals on Saturday will be different, too – yet another adjustment for Miazga in a year already full of them.

“In football you go through your ups and downs, you’ve just got to learn how to bounce back,” he said. “I know a lot of the players are strong players and they have a great coach in Jesse [Marsch]. I think they’ll bounce back and this weekend’s big for them against New York City FC. I’m excited for them and I’m definitely going to be watching that game.”