“Jersey Strong” – USMNT’s Miazga aims to kick on at Chelsea

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LONDON — “Why would you step on the field and not want to be the best, you know?” Matt Miazga said, in a thick New Jersey accent.

“That’s the kind of mentality a lot of people have and that I have. I want to go on the pitch and be the best. I don’t want to be the worst, obviously. You have to go out there and be the best player. That’s it. It is definitely a goal of mine, to become the best American [player] and help Chelsea the best I can.”

Last weekend Miazga became the first American to play for Chelsea, and as he leant over to chat with me at Chelsea’s training ground a few days after that landmark moment, you could see he’s not yet fully developed and has plenty of time to grow into his frame and become an even more imposing central defender.

[ MORE: How’d Miazga do on debut? ]

There’s plenty more to come from him in and alongside Jordan Morris, Gedion Zelalem and Christian Pulisic, Miazga’s one of the great hopes for the next generation of U.S. national team players.

His debut was of huge excitement to fans of the U.S. national team who are trying hard not to get carried away with Miazga getting minutes in the Premier League.

[ WATCH: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

As you can tell, he’s not short on confidence. But then again, why should he be? At the moment Miazga must feel like he’s on top of the world. At the age of 20 he put in a mature, composed display in Chelsea’s 4-0 shellacking of Aston Villa as he continues his remarkably rapid rise to the top.

A native of Clifton, New Jersey, Miazga grew up to Polish parents and such were his talents the 6 foot 4 inch center back has been tailed by the Polish FA for many years, leading to an appearance for the U-18 squad and multiple call ups to their U-20 team which he declined.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Miazga always knew he wanted to play for the U.S. national team and last November he made his debut for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side in a 2018 World Cup qualifier, cap-tying him with the USMNT.

“To be fair, I always envisaged myself playing for the U.S. national team,” Miazga explained. ”I had an opportunity for the Polish national team and have been in contact with their federation for years now and still have good connections with some people over there because I played with the U-18s. When the opportunity came with the U.S. I always knew this was what I wanted.”

And Miazga is a young man who certainly knows what he wants.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Matt Miazga of Chelsea and Rudy Gestede of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Chelsea at Villa Park on April 2, 2016 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images)

After his speedy journey through the academy ranks with his hometown team the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer, Miazga had a standout 2015 MLS season under Jesse March’s Supporters Shield winners and was named in the Team of the Year in MLS. Despite lauding Marsch as “one of the best coaches I’ve had” and waxing lyrical about his attention to every single detail, he wanted to test himself in Europe as soon as possible.

When the chance arrived to join Chelsea in January, one of the biggest clubs in the world, Miazga grabbed it with both hands as the Blues are reported to have paid $5 million for the young American defender.

“There were teams interested and I always made it clear that my goal was to go to Europe when my contract finished with MLS,” Miazga said. “I was looking forward to it and I want to challenge myself, because I want to be the best player that I can be.”

Many believed Miazga would be loaned out to a smaller team across Europe – Chelsea currently has 33 young players out on loan – for the remainder of this season but he’s remained at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground and has gained valuable experience training with the first team, learning from veteran central defenders like John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic.

After just one U-21 outing and a place on the bench as an unused sub for the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg game at Paris Saint-Germain, Miazga was thrust into the spotlight last weekend at Villa Park.

Interim Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink told him on the morning of the game he would make his Premier League and Chelsea debut as injuries to Terry, Cahill and Kurt Zouma had ravaged the Blues’ options in central defense.

“I was very happy to make my debut but I know there’s a lot more work to do and I am going to continue to work on the pitch and build for the future,” Miazga said. “It has been great [being at Chelsea], all the guys have been very welcoming. Training is top quality, obviously. There are world class players at this club. I feel like it has been going great and I feel like I’ve been getting better and I will continue to work hard to try and get better.”

“He had a proper game,” Hiddink said afterwards. “At a young age, he played with experience and was guided by the guys with experience.”

PRESTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 3: Matt Miazga of USA during the International friendly match between England U21 and USA U23 at Deepdale on September 3, 2015 in Preston, England. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)

Miazga is focused and has that steely determination to overcome challenges put in front of him. If you will, he’s “Jersey Strong” and isn’t intent on just making up the numbers at Chelsea.

He admits he “never really idolized anyone” growing up but took little bits from the best center backs in the world, Terry being one of them, and is delighted to be learning from him in training. With Chelsea not having much to play for other than trying to finish in the top six in their remaining seven games of the PL season, Miazga is likely to get plenty more minutes to show what he can do and could start again against Swansea City this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via Live Extra).

And when it comes to flying the American flag in England, he revealed his admiration for previous and current U.S. central defenders in the PL such as Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron who’ve blazed a trail for others to follow.

“Obviously you want to strive to get to the level that they’ve been at and there is always room for more,” Miazga said.

That determination and willingness to never settle for second best comes from his father, who Miazga calls “the biggest influence on his career” so far.

“He always pushes me and says there is always room for improvement, to never get too satisfied and to always improve. He is my biggest critic and still is today, so I value his opinion the most and try to make him happy and proud. I Facetimed with my family after my debut and he was happy I made my debut. But like I said… always room for improvement and never satisfied,” Miazga smiled.

What’s next for Miazga now he has his first minutes for Chelsea in the PL under his belt?

“I just want to continue to control what I can control,” Miazga said. “Which is to train my best, focus on myself and train the best I can train and if opportunities come I’ll be ready to contribute to the team.”

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 22: Kei Kamara #23 of the Columbus Crew SC heads the ball past Matt Miazga #20 of the New York Red Bulls during the first half on November 22, 2015 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

In his debut he looked composed on the ball, was always looking forward with his passes even if a few of the longer ones didn’t come off and made some key interceptions against Villa. Facing the bullish Rudy Gestede in aerial battles, Miazga got a quick lesson as to what the hustle and bustle of the PL is all about.

But it’s not just the atmosphere in and around the dressing room and on the pitch which has impressed him. The fan culture, compared to MLS, has been a huge eye-opener.

“The pace [compared to MLS] is one that stands out but in general, things off of the pitch,” Miazga explained. “The professionalism and the fans. It is all or nothing here. I have noticed in MLS that you have your supporters groups and it is more of a social event to go to games. But here the whole stadium is in tune and it is like life and death. Everyone is into it. Which I love. I love the passion.”

Miazga definitely has an old head on young shoulders as he gave diplomatic answers to other media outlets about the impending arrival of new manager Antonio Conte in the summer. Miazga confirmed the Chelsea players met Conte earlier this week but he’s taking one step at a time in his new adventure abroad.

That said, Miazga has fitted in rather well in England as he calls the game “football” instead of “soccer” and says it has always been like that due to his Polish roots. To keep things more familiar he chose to keep the number 20 when selecting his Chelsea squad number. He had that number with the Red Bulls and when asked why he chose it again, his answer was pretty pragmatic and came with a smile.

“Here it is the coincidence. I remember when I signed with the Red Bulls I wanted the lowest number available because I’m a defender. I signed mid-season, so a lot of those numbers were already taken. 20 was the lowest number available. So I was like, yeah I’ll just get 20. I picked 20 and stuck with it,” Miazga explained.

“I had chances to move to lower numbers as the seasons progressed in MLS but then I realized everyone already had my jersey and my family and friends and my number was 20… so I’ll keep it through my Red Bull career. So I came here and there were a few numbers available but I was like ‘20 has been serving me well, so I will just stick with it.’”

ChelseaFC.com

Growing up, he’d hang out with his friends on the streets of New Jersey and would begrudgingly join in any pickup games of basketball or “the other football” but football always ran through his blood.

Just like it does for many in one of the biggest hotbeds of American soccer which has produced John Harkes, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Giuseppe Rossi and countless others.

“In Jersey in general, football is pretty big there. Obviously you have California and Texas where they play a lot, but in Jersey they play football a lot as well,” Miazga said. “You can see some of the homegrown talents that came out of Jersey and hopefully there are many more that come out of there. “

He’s the latest and Jersey is never too far from Miazga’s mind and his Jersey accent is certainly a strong giveaway as to where he’s from.

For now though, he’s starting a new life in England and after four months in the capital he still lives in a hotel in London but is enjoying getting to know fellow youngsters thrust into the first team alongside him;, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Bertrand Traore and Baba Rahman.

He’s in no rush to find a more permanent place to live as he doesn’t plan on being in England much this summer. Making the USMNT’s Copa America Centenario squad is his main aim.

“Every time there is a national team window you want to be called up,” Miazga said.

Miazga also said he spoke extensively with USMNT head coach Klinsmann before making the move to Chelsea and received a text of congratulations from him after making his debut last weekend.

“I was actually in January camp with the national team when the move was being concluded. He knew it was in the works with me making a move to Europe, he was all for it obviously,” Miazga said. “Whatever I wanted to do, he was going to support me. Whether that was to stay in MLS or go abroad. He was very happy that a move to Chelsea transpired. Now I’ve just got to continue to work hard and show I can play for his national team.”

Chelsea's US defender Matt Miazga warms up before the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Chelsea at Villa Park in Birmingham, central England on April 2, 2016. / AFP / OLI SCARFF / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

Klinsmann’s advice to Miazga was clear: this is only the start of your journey.

“Like any other coach, he said work hard in training and keep trying to establish yourself,” Miazga said. “He said ‘You’re a young player, so just build for your future.’”

Miazga’s future prospects with the U.S. national team have certainly been boosted by making the most of his big chance at Chelsea so far.

His Chelsea debut came just four days after the disappointment of the U.S. U-23 side not qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio this summer. Yet, Miazga was positive when asked if he and his teammates who failed to qualify for Rio, but shone at the U-20 World Cup last summer, could make the step up to the full national team soon.

“I think so, we have a lot of talented players who played in that U-20 World Cup and did fairly well. A lot of them play in some clubs here in Europe and have been getting minutes,” Miazga said. “Guys like Emerson Hyndman, Rubio Rubin and Kellyn Acosta, Cameron Carter-Vickers too. There are a lot of talented players. That whole team is very talented and there is definitely room to make the jump.”

Miazga is leading that pack who aim to jump into Klinsmann’s plans full –time but even after a wet and windy training session in suburban London, Jersey and the U.S. is never far from his mind.

“I have a lot of family there and I am very family orientated,” Miazga said. “I had a lot of friends growing up there that still live there today and are from Jersey and Clifton, but it was like being any typical American kid. You go to school. You have friends and you play organized sports and you have your family. I can’t complain… I love Jersey.”

Chelsea needs to wait “48 hours” to assess Mount

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Mason Mount‘s move from the Championship to the Premier League has been nearly seamless.

His adjustment to the Champions League was cut down too quickly to get an understanding of whether it would be too big of a jump.

[ MORE: Match recap | Barkley drama ]

Mount, 20, was chopped down by Valencia’s Francis Coquelin, the former Arsenal man, and had to leave the game after just 16 minutes.

Here’s Frank Lampard, from ChelseaFC.com:

“He’s got an ankle injury but we don’t know how bad it is. We’ll have to assess it in the next 48 hours to see the scale of the injury. It was a shame because he started the game well and it meant we had to make the change early on.”

Mount scored nine times with four assists on loan under Lampard at Derby County last season, and has already chipped in three goals for Chelsea this season.

Lampard turned to Pedro off the bench on Tuesday, but any lengthy absence for Mount will spell more time for American youngster Christian Pulisic.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday preview: Man City, Spurs debut

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Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur begin their UEFA Champions League campaigns on very different results and with very different vibes.

City is coming off a stunning 3-2 loss to injury-hit Norwich City, and is set up in Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk for the third-straight season, a side which beat Pep Guardiola once in four tries between 2017/18 and 2018/19 in the UCL.

[ MORE: UCL Tues. wrap ]

But on Wednesday, Guardiola’s men are going to carry a similar feel to one of his old Barcelona teams, as Pep seemingly will have Fernandinho pull a Javier Mascherano and drop into the back line.

Yes, Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi are Manchester City’s hopes at center back, now that John Stones has joined Aymeric Laporte on the shelf.

“For me as a manager it’s an incredible challenge,” said Pep Guardiola. “But I believe a lot, people don’t know the spirit and resolve to solve this problem. The players going to come back with Dinho, Eric Garcia, Taylor Harwood-Bellis. … It’s happened, but what we are not going to do is complain. We have to have 11 players on the pitch and I like it, to find a solution. For the players as well to find an incredible step forward.”

Spurs, meanwhile, will simply be trying to build on any momentum gained by a 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace at the weekend, a win which came after manager Mauricio Pochettino begged his side to “re-focus” after a relatively poor start to the season.

Now a bit more relaxed, Spurs head to Greece as the clear favorites against stingy Olympiacos. These are, after all, the finalists of last season’s tournament.

Pochettino won’t be sleeping on the challenge, from The London Evening Standard:

“They have good players and if we are not focused and don’t take our best game we are going to suffer. But last season we played in the final of Champions League, so it’s normal people think before the game, Tottenham is one step above Olympiacos but in the end you need to show it on the pitch.”

Spurs are one of two early kickoffs on Tuesday.

Full UCL Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Galatasaray
Olympiacos v. Tottenham Hotspur

3 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Paris Saint-Germain v. Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid v. Juventus
Dinamo Zagreb v. Atalanta
Bayern Munich v. Red Star Belgrade
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Manchester City

American coach Marsch speaks after landmark Champions League day

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Jesse Marsch made his UEFA Champions League debut on Tuesday, a historic first for not just the Wisconsin native but also his country.

Marsch, 45, oversaw Red Bull Salzburg’s 6-2 demolition of Genk, becoming the first American to win a UCL match as manager.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

“We knew we were going into the match full of confidence,” he said, via the Salzburg site. “We knew too that we could put in a performance of this quality. I wasn’t pleased with a few situations, such as conceding for 3-1. That shows our incredible mentality though as it prompted us to give a few more percent and immediately score two goals.”

The ex-New York Red Bulls manager and RB Leipzig assistant manager got another three goals from incredible 19-year-old striker Erling Braut Haland, who nows has 17 goals in nine matches this season.

“It is an absolute joy to work with this team. We have a lot of players who just know how to battle, and that rubs off on the others. You can see that on the pitch on nights like tonight.”

There will be tougher nights ahead for Marsch, who is in a group with Liverpool and Napoli, but Tuesday was a fine start for the tactician. And it was a banner moment for American coaches abroad, who’ve been led by past and present USMNT coaches Bob Bradley and Gregg Berhalter.

Maybe one day that’ll be Marsch’s title… but it seems like he may have some loftier ground to cover on his path through world soccer.

Klopp: Liverpool made wrong decisions; Penalty also incorrect

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is going to bat for his left back after Andrew Robertson gave away what became the decisive penalty in a 2-0 loss to Napoli in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

“I don’t think it’s a penalty,” Klopp said. “What can I say, for me, it is clear and obvious no penalty. He jumps before any contact, we can’t change that.”

[ RECAP: Napoli 2-0 Liverpool ]

For what it’s worth: It sure seemed like both a foul on Robertson and a comical embellishment from Callejon, but we digress.

Liverpool just didn’t have it on the day, like when Sadio Mane played a terrible pass to Mohamed Salah on what could’ve been an easy 1-0 lead.

In the moments they did have it, there was Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret making a splendid save.

“We played a lot of good football but didn’t finish it off. We controlled moments but had not enough chances in the end. We made decisions that were not right and have to accept the result. It was very often the final ball that was not right.”

Also, forgive Klopp if he has stopped enjoying the beautiful country of Italy.