By Ridge Mahoney
Just how deep is the competition at centerback on the current U.S. team?
Three winners of the MLS Defender of the Year Award -- Omar Gonzalez
(2011), Matt Besler
(2012) and Matt Hedges
(2016) -- are competing for Gold Cup playing time and,
presumably, backup spots behind John Brooks
and Geoff Cameron
, who will be back in the squad when Hexagonal play resumes in September.
U.S. head coach Bruce Arena
given extensive time to all three players in the tournament, as well as former Red Bulls Homegrown Player Matt Miazga
, whose first full pro season produced 18 Eredivisie appearances and all
five Dutch Cup games with winner Vitesse Arnhem. Miazga played on loan from Chelsea, as did about three dozen other players, so he's not concerned about where he'll be this season.
haven't found out yet," he said a few days after marking his third U.S. cap with his first international goal in a 3-0 defeat of Nicaragua. "Right now, I'm just focused on the national team and trying
to contribute every time I step on the field."
Miazga, who celebrated his 22nd birthday last week, bypassed the college system followed by Gonzalez, Besler, Hedges -- as well as Cameron
-- to sign with the Red Bulls academy program, and after helping its U-16 team win a national title, played 34 league games during three MLS seasons before turning down a Designated Player contract.
He also bypassed a chance to represent Poland, where his parents were born, after playing one U-18 friendly. In 2013, he played his first game for the U.S. at the U-18 level and competed
in the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup before attaining his ambition of playing abroad.
In January 2016, MLS accepted a $5 million transfer fee from Chelsea, which kept Miazga for the second
half of the Premier League season and then loaned him to Vitesse, which finished fifth and also won the Dutch Cup to qualify for the Europa League.
"That was a lot of fun, obviously, to
have that great run in the Cup," he says. "We did well in the league, too, and it helped me a play a lot of games and for the team to have success."
The native of Clifton, N.J. is
undaunted by the stiff competition at centerback and in the defensive corps overall. Of the six changes Arena made for the knockout phase of the Gold Cup, none were defenders, and all eight players
have started at least one game in the tournament. Though Miazga has been overseas for a year and a half, and last played a U.S. game in May 2016 against Puerto Rico, he saw mostly familiar faces when
he checked into camp three weeks ago.
'For the most part I knew all of these players before because I was called up a few times under Jurgen [Klinsmann
], so I've spent some time
with these players and obviously I know a a couple younger players from the youth national teams a little bit more," said Miazga. "I have a couple of former teammates on the team and I've played a
bunch of games against most of these players. In camp, everyone talks to everyone, so there's good vibes and good conversations around."
In Miazga, Arena and the USA have something more
than just another good-size (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) centerback. He moves smoothly and fluidly, can pass with either foot, is willing and able to battle the big forwards so common on the modern game,
and as he showed against Nicaragua can put the ball in the net.
His header in the 88th minute from a Graham Zusi
corner kick provided the 3-0 margin needed by the USA to top Group
B. Since then, he's been on the bench for the quarterfinal and semifinal, and has no idea of his status for the Gold Cup final against Jamaica. He does know what the return of Arena has meant for the
U.S. team as well as himself.
"He's been around the game a long time and obviously won a lot of titles and games and all that good stuff," said Miazga. "This is my first time working with
him and any time I work with a new coach it's good to learn and hear a new perspective, get some different insights and different ideas, and tactics and philosophies about the game and in general.
"He sets the mood good in the changing room and around the team and around the camp. He likes to tell jokes and be a good guy, easy to talk to. He's always catching up with guys and speaking
to them off the field about their lives. On the field, he does his thing and sets it up well. He knows what he's doing."
When asked what he thinks he needs to work on he gives the
standard answer of all young players: just about everything. However, as one of three defenders to score goals for the U.S. at this tournament -- Gonzalez has two, Eric Lichaj
one -- he had to
let out a bit of his inner forward.
"I need to get better in every aspect, no one's perfect," he says. "But to be honest, I would like to score more goals. As a defender I want to be more
dangerous on set pieces, get my head on more set pieces.
"Every time I go out on the field I want to contribute to the team, winning games and getting clean sheets. But I also want to
contribute on both ends."