The English FA Cup fourth-round match to be played Sunday between League Championship straggler MK Dons and defending Premier League champion Chelsea is tinged with relevance that has nothing to do with the storied, romantic tradition of the competition.
For decades, matchups of minnows against powerful clubs captured imaginations not just in England but around the world, and this game pits the same club that when it was known as Wimbledon beat Liverpool in the 1988 final against all the prestige and privilege commanded by a billionaire Russian oligarch, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
Nowadays the FA Cup is more about its tradition than its reality, which is the bigger teams use it to test secondary players while resting their stars for Premier League matches or European club games. If said big team gets as far as the quarterfinals -- which requires surviving rounds three, four, and five -- the perspective may change, since even a devalued FA Cup is regarded as a major trophy.
Yet MK Dons-Chelsea is a convergence of different paths for a pair of young U.S. players. In attendance, albeit in very minor roles, will probably be defender Matt Miazga and goalkeeper Cody Cropper. Barring a last-minute obstacle to his transfer, Miazga will be a Chelsea player perhaps watching from the stands. Cropper is likely to be on the bench as the MK backup keeper, though he did play in the FA Cup third round as well as in a League Cup match earlier in the season.
The paths chosen by these young players when they were teenagers are just two of many options, each of which entails its own risks and rewards.
Miazga, 20, signed a Homegrown contract with the Red Bulls three years ago and earlier this week left the U.S. January training camp to complete a move to Chelsea. He’s eligible to play for Chelsea on its U-21 team and will train with the first team while interim manager Guus Hiddink and the coaching staff evaluate him. Once he turns 21 in July, his options are limited.
Four years ago, the Premier Reserve League ceased operations and was replaced by the U-21 competition. While that seems a sensible, logical step in terms of developing younger players, it does force teams to make hard decisions on players at a critical stage of their career. Cropper knows this well.
A native of Atlanta whose family moved to Minnesota when he was 12, Cropper went to England at age 17 to join the academy program at Ipswich Town. After signing with Southampton in 2012, Cropper played 24 games for its U-21s but never got a shot with the first team despite starting for the U.S. at the 2013 U-20 World Cup. Last June, Southampton could have re-signed him and perhaps loaned him to another club, but instead released him.
A loan is certainly possible for Miazga once he’s no longer eligible for the U-21s, starting with the 2016-17 season. Probably no team has more players, more two dozen, out on loan than Chelsea. A couple of them have been loaned back to the teams that sold them to Chelsea, others have been sent to teams in England or abroad to Turkey, Spain or the Netherlands. (Tottenham loaned DeAndre Yedlin back to Seattle once he'd been transferred.)
International loans are regarded by FIFA as the same as international transfers, and thus a loan of Miazga to a foreign team would have to be conducted during that team's relevant transfer window. Domestic loans are not so tightly restricted, but the complication for Miazga and any other player going out on loan is finding the right balance of playing time and manager willing to honor international callups. He could be very busy this year playing for U.S. U-23s as well as the senior team, where a centerback shuffle has been in force for several years.
Ideally, Miazga will perform well enough to stay with the Chelsea first team and get some playing time. But he’s not just battling the backups for John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branko Ivanovic on the current 25-man squad, there are those other loanees for the coaches to consider as well.
Danish centerback Andreas Christensen is a year younger and like Miazga has already represented his country at the senior level. He’s a teammate of U.S. international Fabian Johnson at Borussia Moenchengladbach, for which he’s played 16 Bundesliga matches on loan. He has started and played the full 90 minutes in each appearance, including a 1-0 loss at Mainz on Friday.
Other young defenders are out on loan to clubs such as Reading, Middlesbrough, Watford and Kasimpasa in Turkey. Miazga’s play for the Red Bulls and U.S. teams has deservedly earned plaudits, yet he heads to Chelsea with a club resume that consists of 38 games in a league gaining respect only grudgingly around the world.
Yes, Chelsea paid good money for Miazga -- $5 million according to the Daily Mail –but its history under Abramovich is to spend, not always wisely. It paid nearly $5.7 million for Jamaican centerback Michael Hector, who is 23 and starting regularly for Reading in the League Championship. He’s not yet regarded as a serious first-team candidate.
Fortunately, Miazga has incredible tools. He’s amazingly quick and balanced at 6-foot-4, powerful in the air, reads the game well, and plays the ball accurately off both feet. He needs intense physical training, the mentoring of coaches and experienced players, and a steady diet of competitive games to fulfill his potential.
Both Miazga and Cropper are key members of the U.S. U-23 pool, and both could be short of game fitness when the crucial playoff games against Colombia are played in March. The longer-term picture is brighter for Miazga, whose upside seems limitless. If Cropper stays on the MK bench the rest of the season, he may go through another summer of uncertainty about the correct turn to take on the path he has picked.