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.
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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.
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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.
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.”
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.”
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.’”
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.”
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.”