The Weekend Interview: Matt Miazga
feature Sat 6 Feb 2016
Older fans will remember Roy Wegerle – the attacking player with George Best-style hair who was no mean dribbler of the ball himself.
However at Chelsea in the 1980s, we thought of Wegerle more as a South African, the country of his birth and upbringing. Though he had played in the United States before Stamford Bridge, it was only after leaving Chelsea he became an American citizen and played for the US national team, including at their own World Cup in 1994.
So it is Matt Miazga, our new signing from New York Red Bulls, who is the first ‘born in the USA’ American player in the Chelsea squad. The 20-year-old, who to be accurate is a native New Jersey boy rather than a native New Yorker, is sure to have plenty of people from his side of the Atlantic watching his progress in England with interest.
‘I have received a lot of messages from people and family and friends back home, so they are supporting me and now it is up to me to perform and contribute in any way I can,’ Miazga confirms to the official Chelsea website. It’s our first interview with the young central defender so we take him back to the start of his football story.
‘My background is Polish, Miazga is a Polish name, and football is the biggest sport in Poland,’ he begins.
‘My dad loves it and when I was a young boy he put me in some recreation football when I was roughly around six years old. Slowly and surely I moved up every year and once I was 13 I joined the Red Bull Academy, so it become more and more serious and more and more professional and from there I signed a professional contract.
‘I was always pretty athletic,’ he recalls. ‘As a footballer you are athletic and can do a lot of things. I was okay at other sports but I wasn’t the best. If all my friends wanted to play basketball in the park, I would join in because nobody really played football.’
The conversation stops briefly as he acknowledges the word ‘football’ rather than ‘soccer’ in this context could cause confusion back home. He is fully aware of their different usage in the two countries.
‘Maybe I will say NFL when I mean American football,’ he smiles.
The 2015 MLS season was clearly Miazga’s breakthrough year. His manager at New York Red Bulls spoke to him at the start of the campaign and told the then 19-year-old he aimed to integrate him slowly. But then injury to a team-mate forced the issue and Miazga was in the side, hitting the ground running…and heading…and tackling well, as the team went on a long unbeaten run.
When he was absent mid-season because of the Under-20 World Cup, New York Red Bulls began to lose, a drop in form whose reversal coincided with Miazga’s return. They eventually made the play-offs where they lost the Eastern Conference final to Columbus Crew.
‘When I came back and we started winning again, that was pretty crucial for me,’ he reflects.
‘In a season you have ups and downs, sometimes you have a bad game or make some mistakes but I would say I was fairly consistent all year and I was getting better and better and more confident.’
During the season he faced the Big Apple’s other MLS side, New York City, featuring no less than Frank Lampard in their side, as well as David Villa and Andrea Pirlo.
‘We played them in the Red Bull Arena and there were obviously some world-class players there and every time you step on the field against them you want to do well. It was a good experience playing against top players like that – meeting them and competing against them.
‘Frank Lampard had some chances and we were lucky he didn’t put them away but he obviously had good quality on the ball.’
That 2-0 win for Red Bulls followed an earlier meeting between the two sides (without Lampard) in the same Yankee Stadium that has hosted Chelsea on tour. Miazga headed in his team’s third in a 3-1 win, his first MLS goal, and he and his team-mates had some fun with their celebration, miming a baseball shot in reference to that stadium’s main sport.
Unlike New York City, New York Red Bulls have moved to their own purpose-built arena in New Jersey, having previously played in the NFL Giants Stadium. The Red Bull Arena hosted the first match of Chelsea’s pre-season back in July although Miazga did not take part.
‘We had a cup game with our first team two days before that game. It was scheduled really awkwardly because obviously we wanted to play against the reigning champions of England but our young team played that game. I was there, in the boxes watching and I could not believe it, we did very well.’
Miazga did very well himself at the Under-20 World Cup that same summer. He played in the first two group stage wins and helped the USA keep a clean sheet in a goalless draw against eventual champions Serbia in the quarter-finals, only exiting the tournament on penalties.
He could have chosen Poland for his international football. He speaks Polish and grew up with Polish traditions but having represented the US from Under-14s upwards, he opted for the country of his birth when he made his full international debut in November.
So it is at Chelsea, where he is seen as one for the future, and hopefully with the USA team where his football will now be played. He shares his early impressions of life here and what he believes to be his main strengths.
‘I really like it, it is a higher level, the ball moves much faster but yeah, it is good. All the guys are very welcoming and I am really enjoying it.
‘My game is definitely built on winning aerial challenges and tackles. As a centre-back you have to have an aerial presence and win a lot of headers, and my job is to win duels and not let opponents score, so every time I try to get a good tackle in and make my opponent know that I am there and it is not going to be an easy time trying to go by me.
‘I’ve been watching the Premier League since I was a young boy. Everyone knows the league is very competitive and any team can beat any team. Everyone is going all out to win their games so it is a very exciting league and I look forward to it.’