National Writer: Charles Boehm

Matt Miazga vows to make Cincinnati “serial winner" after Chelsea loan swing

His time with Chelsea FC, or more specifically on duty with their “loan army,” has been called a questionable career choice, a “cautionary tale” for North American players eager to hit the European big time.

He logged five loan stints at five clubs in five different countries across the Old Continent, often playing well, yet somehow never finding a permanent landing spot while totaling just a handful of first-team appearances for the London giants.

Matt Miazga wants you to know that he’s no victim.

“It’s been quite a ride and I’m very thankful for it,” the center back told reporters on Tuesday in his first media availability since returning to MLS via a free transfer to FC Cincinnati in the final days of the MLS Secondary Transfer Window.

“I’ve been able to live in so many different countries – play football, my passion, in so many different countries. And meet so many new people, so many lifelong friends that I’ll always have, teammates and people within the clubs that I played at, as well as immersing myself in new cultures, new places to live, and learning.

“When I look back, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

No regrets

Miazga has no regrets, no outward signs of bitterness. Every move he made had its own context, and made sense at the time, whatever difficult circumstances might have intervened. On Tuesday he readily explained, chapter by chapter, the challenges and benefits of a half-decade’s worth of invaluable soccer and life experiences he could hardly have imagined as a lanky kid growing up in Clifton, New Jersey.

That starts with the initial decision to join Chelsea on a $5 million transfer in January 2016, after blossoming into one of MLS’s best defenders as a New York Red Bulls homegrown and helping RBNY claim two Supporters’ Shields in three seasons.

“When I left Red Bull I was, what, 20 years of age? I had a good year that year, we were able to win a Supporters’ Shield and everything worked out,” he recalled. “There was a lot of interest for me, and when Chelsea comes calling, when [Jose] Mourinho calls you and you're able to meet with him in London, you're not going to say no, really. It's a dream and it was a proud moment to be wanted by a massive club like that.”

Miazga spent the second half of the Blues’ 2015-16 campaign with their first team, soaking up precious knowledge from the likes of John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas – “a world-class club like that, with world-class players,” as he put it. That summer, an Eredivisie stint with Vitesse offered a logical next step. He played regularly in a highly technical league, and even helped the Dutch club win the KNVB Cup.

“I was a 20-, 21-year-old kid from America that had, what, 40 professional games under his belt in MLS? And then making that massive jump to Chelsea, I kind of missed my development here,” he said. “So I had to go and take a step back, and go out and play football matches, go out to a league where I was able to get an opportunity to showcase myself.”

Permanent home

Miazga almost always felt he was progressing, as a player and person, on subsequent loan moves, even when coaching changes or poor team results or injuries, or even COVID-19 sidetracked him.

At Anderlecht in Belgium, he had the chance to work under one of the best center backs of the 21st century in manager Vincent Kompany, and experience the pressure of life at a big club where trophies are always demanded. Reading FC gave him a taste of a relegation fight, and the relentless ruggedness of the English Championship, “probably one of most difficult leagues in the world, the most demanding,” he said. A LaLiga stint with Alaves ended in relegation, with COVID and a coaching change scuppering his playing time, but he learned Spanish along the way.

“Everyone thinks ‘oh, you go on loan, it’s not the right development path.’ But realistically, it is,” said Miazga. “I’m taking steps to climb back up the ladder. And that was the development process in all this.

“And then by the way, meanwhile, Chelsea’s been receiving permanent offers,” he added. “Chelsea wants – sometimes there’s a lot of variables that go into it. And there needs to be agreements on all parties for transfers, some places want more money than what’s being offered and so on and so forth. I remember after Anderlecht tried to sign me in the summer of ’21, they couldn’t come to an agreement with Chelsea. So it was difficult to find an agreement at the time.”

Cincy’s pitch

As recently as this spring, MLS still wasn’t quite back on his radar yet. But he was already on Cincinnati’s, as FCC’s new general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan identified him as a prime piece for their rebuilding project. He’d previously worked with Noonan when the latter was an assistant under Bruce Arena with the US men’s national team. In June they hit him with a full recruiting pitch when he visited the city and took in their gorgeous new stadium and training facility, pushing FCC to the top of his list of MLS suitors.

“Once I started conversations with Cincinnati, with Chris and [club president Jeff Berding], my mind kind of switched up a bit. And when I came here to visit them, and meet in person and see everything the club had to offer, that really got my mind thinking to come back,” said Miazga. “Then I went to preseason with Chelsea, some of it was with the first team, some of it was with loan players and U-23s, just to stay fit. Then I kind of realized, it might be time to come back to MLS and be somewhere where I feel really, really good, and the project is very impressive to be part of.”

Miazga turned 27 last month. He’s married now and looking to start a family. A nomadic existence holds less appeal these days. After spending his final months in Spain on the bench, he’s understandably eager to play every week and raise his USMNT prospects. He believes he can be a foundational piece of something special in Cincy, and the Knifey Lions’ dramatic 2022 turnaround offers proof of concept.

“This is a nice place to be, and the club is growing. Honestly, we have everything here to be successful,” he said, with the Orange & Blue using their Allocation Order top spot to select him. “This was definitely a place that can make sense for me and the stage of my career where I’m at. And it all came to fruition.”

Despite not having played a competitive match since February, Miazga believes his preseason work at Chelsea has given him a fitness base to start contributing quickly. He’s hustling to familiarize himself with his teammates and Noonan’s game model, and considering how leaky playoff-chasing Cincy’s defense has been, he might well see game action soon – perhaps when his new team visits his old club RBNY on Aug. 20.

“I have match fitness in me; now it’s just about adjusting as quick as possible to the philosophy of Pat and the way we play and getting to know my new teammates,” he said. “I’m a competitor. I like to win, I like to push myself and contribute as much as I can. So I’m hoping to use my experiences and my qualities playing for so long already to help Cincinnati and help this club reach its potential, and that’s to be a serial winner in MLS.”