"He's by far the best young prospect in MLS. He's got all the potential to be one of the best defenders in the world for over a decade."
Those words from one MLS scout only confirm what many observers have been saying throughout the whole of the 2015 campaign. Many experts consider Matt Miazga the best defender in the league already, and he only turned 20 in July.
Born to lead
Date of birth: July 19, 1995
Place of birth: New Jersey, United States
Height: 6ft 4in
Current club: New York Red Bulls (39 apps, 1 goal)
International: United States Under-23 (3 apps, 1 goal)
New York Red Bulls have been the surprise package in MLS this year. Despite the lack of big-name acquisitions, the former club of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill have not only played the best and most consistent football, but also finished top of the league in the regular season. With a 1-0 lead over D.C. United from the first leg of the sides’ Eastern Conference semi-final, the Red Bulls now have an excellent chance of winning the play-offs for the first time in the club’s history. Miazga's role in their success has been significant: the Polish-American youngster has been a commanding presence in the heart of the backline ever since Jesse Marsch became head coach last winter.
"I think in many ways he’s been one of the best defenders in the league this year and should be considered in that echelon,” Marsch told MLS.net. “His starting points are very high – everything from his mentality, to his awareness, to his athleticism – which means his ceiling is very high.
"He gave me confidence, which I feed off," said Miazga of his boss before the clash with D.C. United. “I like the system we play defensively, with guys pressing hard in the middle of the pitch, which makes the job easier for us defenders. We are very compact and organised. We don’t have stars. Our entire team is a star."
Showing signs of being more mature than would be expected of someone his age, Miazga likes to go in detail when describing his own style of play. "I communicate a lot with other defenders; I want to be more of a leader,” says the 20-year-old, who not only took David Villa out of the game with some flawless marking in the prestigious, nationally-televised New York derby, but also scored the winning goal.
“I'm not afraid of tackling opposing players, but I also like to play with the ball. I can initiate attacks with a series of short passes and also play a long ball straight to the striker. I'm not afraid of taking those risks.
"I'm always active when it comes to set-pieces too. I try to find a position to score, using my height and aerial ability. I can jump pretty well, so I'm definitely looking to add more goals to my resume."
Premier League attention
Experts compare him to a young Jaap Stam or Wladyslaw Zmuda, who was the key component of Polish national teams which finished third in 1974 and 1982 World Cup. Miazga calls himself a student of the game, but has different defensive idols. "I like to watch players in Europe and how they step up in the biggest games, serious situations... I definitely admire Jerome Boateng; Varane and Sergio Ramos from Real Madrid are two others I like as well. I don’t want to copy anyone, though, but to have my own style. I might borrow one little thing or two, but in general I'm trying to build my own identity as a footballer.”
And so far it’s going pretty well. Miazga’s combination of height (he stands at 6ft 4in), athleticism and technical skills has caught the eye of many an international scout. According to sources, he previously received offers from Premier League sides Stoke City, Chelsea and Leicester City, but ultimately decided that playing every week for the Red Bulls is best for his development.
"I'm aware of all those rumors, but at the moment I don’t want to focus on that,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to play on the highest level, but right now I'm happy in New York. I can still grow here and become a better player. When the time comes - I will be ready for Europe.”
Both at club and international level? This is where it gets a little tricky: Miazga was born in Clifton, New Jersey to a family of Polish immigrants, and has learned to speak both Polish and English.
Although he grew up in the United States, he’s visited his motherland on a regular basis since he was a kid. He’s also already represented both countries in his fledgling football career, turning out for American (Under-14, -16, -20) and Polish (Under-16 and -18) junior national teams.
Recently it’s looked like Miazga will declare for the US: he has not played for Poland since 2012 and has since become an indispensable member of the American Olympic team coached by former World Cup veteran Tab Ramos. In June he participated in the U20 World Cup, where the US were eliminated on penalties by eventual winners Serbia. On a personal level, Miazga impressed with his own performances.
Birth or origin?
“The U-20 World Cup was a great experience, because I was one of the leaders of the team, organising the defence and commanding the entire formation. I took that role with pride and pleasure. I felt very comfortable in that position. It seemed natural to me,” he claimed afterwards.
Then the offers from England started coming, but still he remained humble: “The EPL is a very intriguing proposition. I love that league - it’s very competitive and there's a lot of passion involved. Hopefully one day I will have an opportunity to play there. I believe my skillset fits the way football is played there.”
While Miazga is sure of his desire to play in the Premier League, he still doesn’t know what his future has in store at international level. The US Federation seems more determined than ever to build a national team around younger players after a disastrous summer, with Miazga central to the plan.
"He is the future of American soccer,” insists Ramos. “We believed in him from day one and worked on his progress. I believe we also have a better programme than Poland. I won’t put any pressure on Matt, though, as it’s his decision to make. I haven’t made up my mind just yet,” Miazga says. “It’s a very tough one. I'm totally undecided. I’ll wait to see who calls me first to the main national team and see what happens then.”
Decision to make
Judging by both countries’ defensive concerns, it should not take too long for that call to arrive. Jurgen Klinsmann has been unable to settle on a regular centre-back pairing recently - especially following the decline of Omar Gonzalez - and Poland boss Adam Nawalka has struggled to find a player to complement Torino stalwart Kamil Glik at the back. Zbigniew Boniek - arguably the greatest Polish player of all-time and now the president of the country's federation - contacted Miazga and made his pitch recently, promising that he’ll be called up soon. "My family wants me to play for Poland and my friends encourage me to choose US. I'm torn. I feel both Polish and American, I really do. It’s hard, so hard.”
Next summer the US will host a prestigious one-off Copa America to celebrate the competition's 100th anniversary, while Poland are seen as potential dark horses at Euro 2016 with stars like Robert Lewandowski and Grzegorz Krychowiak recognized as top players in their respective positions.
Given Miazga's rapid progress up to now, he might even become the first ever player to be called-up to participate in both tournaments at the same time. "It's possible,” grins the talented youngster. "But I should know for sure by then.”
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