[AMERICANS ABROAD] The first leg of the Europa League playoffs was notable for two significant developments: 21-year-old Eric Lichaj made his competitive debut for English Premier League club Aston Villa and national team forward Jozy Altidore played his first competitive game for Villarreal in 20 months.
Lichaj had a solid game at right back for Villa in its 1-1 tie at Rapid Vienna. He was one of several youngsters whom interim manager Kevin MacDonald lined up in front of American Brad Guzan in goal.
Lichaj, who only last week signed a three-year contract extension, was one of four Villa youth products to start, and two of them, Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan, teamed up for the Villa goal.
"I'm very proud indeed," said MacDonald. "It was an education for the boys, who played in patches, but I was pleased with all of them because it's not an easy place to come."
Lichaj, whose parents are Polish and therefore didn't need a work permit to sign in England, played for the Chicago Magic before joining the under-17 residency program but an injury kept him out of the 2005 Under-17 World Championship in Peru.
He enrolled at North Carolina in 2006, but he suffered a broken foot in his first preseason game and never played for the Tar Heels again.
Lichaj moved to Villa in 2007 and has been knocking on the first-team door at Villa for a year. He was loaned out to Lincoln City and Leyton Orient last season to get playing time.
Altidore has returned to Villarreal after spending the last year and a half on loan -- first at Spanish second division club Xerez and then Hull City in England.
He stated last week he wanted to stay at Villarreal, which paid a reported $10 million -- a record for an American player -- two years ago, but he was thought to be on the move again this summer after starting all four games for the USA at the World Cup and attracting the attention of clubs across Europe.
Altidore came on late in Thursday's 5-0 win for the Yellow Submarine over Dnepr Mogilev of Belarus and was denied a sixth goal for Villarreal by keeper Ruslan Kopantsov.
Villarreal's use of Altidore in the Europa playoffs is a signal it plans on keeping him this season. Assuming it wins its series with Dnepr, Altidore is "cup-tied" for the 2010-11 UEFA season, decreasing his value to any club with European ambitions.