RISING: Matt Miazga

Born to Polish parents in New Jersey, Miazga dreamed of becoming a professional player as he developed through the New York Red Bulls’ Academy system. After a standout year for club and country in 2015 saw Miazga make a dream move to Chelsea, the young defender has spent the last two seasons at Dutch side Vitesse, obsessed with honing his craft as he works to become a prime center back with the U.S. Men's National Team.
By: Chris Kennedy

Arnhem sits on the banks of the Rhine River, a sleepy Dutch city 60 miles from Amsterdam. The town usually enjoys a quiet existence, except for the roars that emanate every weekend from the legions of black-and-yellow-clad fans that pack the GelreDome, home to Arnhem’s top attraction: Vitesse.

Matt Miazga can accept responsibility for disturbing the peace in town last spring. The American defender brought some of the madness of the GelreDome to Arnhem’s avenues when he and his Vitesse teammates paraded through with the 125-year-old club’s first trophy: the 2016-17 Dutch Cup.

“It was amazing to be a part of that first trophy,” Miazga said. “Playing in final, that joy, that excitement and just that goose bump feeling after winning was amazing. The city was crazy. We had a big parade and a big celebration after. There was a stage in the middle of the city. Probably 30 to 40,000 fans were there cheering. It was an awesome celebration.”

What a win! Dutch Cup 🏆 All glory to God

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When Miazga signed to play in Europe, he didn’t imagine he’d hoist a trophy and spark one of Arnhem’s rowdiest parties in recent memory. This sleepy hamlet has served as an important step in his single-minded quest to become the best player he can be.

“He came here with a mission,” said Marc van Hintum, Vitesse Sporting Director. “He’s a winner that you don’t see every day. That is something that gives him an extra dimension. His mentality is superb. He’s a guy that comes in and says ‘I need to succeed. I need to train hard, work hard every day, take my rest to train hard the next day.’ Of course he has the ability to play in Holland, but what makes him exceptional is his mentality.”

In Arnhem, Vitesse serves as the main show in town. There’s not a long block of fancy nightclubs and the libations of Amsterdam seem worlds further away than just a 70-minute car ride. As a kid in the suburbs of New York, Miazga picked soccer over everything. He missed school dances, dinner invitations and countless excursions with friends in favor of training and games. As he grew up, those decisions formed Miazga’s unilateral focus. In Arnhem, the lack of alternatives makes the decision a foregone conclusion. That makes the city an ideal home for a footballer devoted to the perfection of his craft.

“I'm here to play football,” Miazga said. “I go train, I sleep, I eat, I rest and repeat and play games. It’s not a big city. There’s no distractions, no extracurricular activities. You just come home, do what you have to do, focus on your craft and prepare. That’s been very beneficial for me.”

Miazga’s parents forged his one-track mind from an early age. He started to play soccer because his Polish parents grew up around the game back in their home country. When he first started to kick the ball around at age four, it didn’t take long to realize that his parents passion would also become his.

“A lot of different kids, a season comes and they play a different sport,” Adam Miazga, Matt’s father said. “I said to him ‘You’re not going to play a different sport, you choose one sport, what you want to do. We’re not going to jump from flower to flower and try everything and when the season is done, you don’t know anything. If you want to play soccer, let’s do it.’”

The local Clifton Olympians provided Miazga’s first competitive soccer, but as he conquered game after game in his small pond, a new challenge became necessary and Miazga joined the New York Red Bulls’ academy set-up. He once again rose to meet each obstacle in his path, and conquered the U.S. Soccer Development Academy as a U-15/16 age group champion in 2012

“Football being my passion kind of drove me to an obsession where I want to develop and become the best footballer I can be,” Miazga said. “Playing at Red Bull, being at a top program and playing with the best players in the country really drove me and really helped me develop and establish myself.”

His imposing frame and knack for physical, lock-down defense caught the attention of scouts from all over as he led the Red Bulls to the Academy championship. Miazga signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Michigan in 2012, but the Red Bulls organization had bigger plans for the young defender. In 2013, he signed as the eighth Homegrown player in club history.

Miazga’s first professional contract indicated that he figured into New York’s future plans, but his progress began slowly. In 2013 and 2014, Miazga only saw the field sparingly across a handful of appearances.  Everything changed in 2015, when new head coach Jesse Marsch came to Harrison, N.J. Miazga would carry the banner for a wholesale shift in organizational philosophy.

“I felt strongly that Matt just needed to be challenged in a big way,” Marsch, now an assistant coach for German Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, said. “There was a lot of change in the organization, an emphasis away from the superstar player and more toward developing young players. He was never really entrusted to do the job. It was mostly because it was a team of veterans and a team of very established players.

“In the previous teams, the young guys were treated like the guys who carried the bags and they were the butt of the jokes, but they weren't really engaged as a real part of the team. I told him for that mentality and shift to change, it was going to be on his shoulders and even though he was 19 and it wasn't fair for to demand that he become a man now, it’s the reality of this business. The best young players, they grow up quickly.”

Prior to 2015, Red Bull Arena had served as a final home for some of the game’s biggest names and a haven for MLS veterans. Legends like Thierry Henry closed out their careers in Harrison and the team enjoyed moderate success. Marsch had other ideas. He gave Miazga just what he needed: an opportunity.

“He gave me that role to try to establish myself as a significant member of the team,” Miazga said. “I embraced that challenge. I thought I took it on well and he kept pushing me along. I really knew what it meant to be part of a professional team fighting for trophies.”

Marsch’s trust in Miazga may have seemed misplaced at the start. In the season’s first match, the young center back committed several errors that almost cost the Red Bulls a draw on the road at Kansas City. After New York survived to salvage a point against Sporting, Marsch didn’t show Miazga the bench. While they broke down his mistakes, they took more time to discuss his mindset and how he translated the tactics to the field. Miazga started for the Red Bulls the following week, and logged 24 more appearances throughout the season.

Miazga’s mission in those matches: shut down the opponent’s best attacking threat. Week in and week out, he would line up with a singular focus to shut down the most dangerous strikers in the league. Sebastian Giovinco. David Villa. Cyle Larin. No matter who lined up on the other side of the field, Miazga would do everything in his power to keep their name off the scoresheet.

During the course of the season, Miazga emerged as one of the league’s best center backs. In the inaugural Hudson River Derby at Yankee Stadium, not only did he score his first professional goal, marked with an emphatic celebratory swing of the bat, but Villa, a goalscoring star for New York City FC, hardly had a touch.

Supporters shield !! We not done yet 👊👊🏆

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Marsch’s gamble on the young center back paid off as he led a defense that took home the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the league’s best regular season team. The silverware represented just the second trophy in New York’s 20 seasons.

When Miazga joined the Red Bull Academy at the Under-14 level and learned teammates had received calls in to the U.S. Youth National Team set-up, he knew he needed to do whatever it took to earn one too. It didn’t take long. Miazga received his first National Team invite at the U-14 level as he established himself within the Red Bulls set-up.  

While his professional career began to blossom in 2015, Miazga’s YNT career took a big step forward in New Zealand at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup. He anchored the U-20s’ back line in Oceania as the team made a run to the quarterfinals. There, the U.S. fell in devastating fashion: nine rounds of penalty kicks in a defeat to eventual champion Serbia.

A breakout campaign in New York and a strong showing in New Zealand combined to draw the eyes of scouts from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Chelsea rose to the forefront from the crop of suitors and Miazga officially signed with the Blues in January 2016. The previous year, Miazga woke up early to catch Premier League games on TV. Now, he would share the training field with the likes of Diego Costa and John Terry.

“I'm 20 years old and I make a move to one of the biggest clubs in the world,” Miazga said. “It was definitely a big adjustment preparing yourself for that level of prestige and the pressure that comes with, but at the same time it was something that I’ve always wanted, something that I’ve really worked towards.”      

Miazga made his Chelsea debut on February 16, 2016, but only played once more for the Premier League side during the season. Famed for its “Loan Army,” he prepared to ship out elsewhere for the 2016-17 campaign. After one attempted move fell through, Miazga made a late deal at the end of the transfer window to join Vitesse in the Dutch first division. The Eredivisie promised a whole new slate of unique challenges for the young center back.

“This is mentally a heavy process for a player because you are being bought by Chelsea, and then at Chelsea they tell you are going on loan to Vitesse Arnhem,” van Hintum said. “That can be difficult for players, but for Matt it was no problem. From the first day he was positive about Vitesse. He came here and said he wanted to develop himself.”   

The Dutch league has a reputation as a hotbed for young talent. Players who hope to one day make a statement in one of Europe’s big five leagues often get their start in Holland at stadiums in places like The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. Just like in M.L.S., Miazga’s prerogative became to keep the other team’s top scorers from finding the back of the net. Eredivise clubs also carry great expectations for their center backs, as the Dutch style of play demands that the defenders are involved in the build-up game.

With an adjustment period necessary and further delayed by the late transfer, Miazga didn’t find himself on the team sheet immediately. Just like in New York, he needed a shot to prove himself. Injuries on the back line provided that chance on September 25, 2016, when Miazga made his first appearance of the season for Vitesse against Twente. He made an instant impression.

“From the first moment on he stood there like a man,” van Hintum said. “That was surprising to us, because not easy to play the Dutch league when you're not used to it. But he had no problems. We were excited to get him in because he had great size, and we needed size and a player who was strong in defense.”

Given the opportunity, Miazga once again took it and ran with it. His start against Twente became the first of 23 appearances in 2016-17. Not only did he impress the sporting staff, but also the working-class fans of Arnhem. They quickly learned that when they came to see Matt Miazga play at the GelreDome, he would give his all to battle for their beloved black and yellow.

“When he comes on the pitch, you see a personality who’s always trying to win, who always wants to win games for you. Every fan likes that,” van Hintum said. “Especially here, because Arnhem is a city that is average of the people, not poor, but not rich at all and not even middle-class. They like to come to the stadium to see people who fight for their money. Matt does that. He’s very popular here.”

Miazga became a stalwart in the Vitesse starting lineup as it made its Dutch Cup run, the Netherlands domestic tournament open to 103 teams across the country. Prior to 2016-17, Vitesse’s best finishes came as a three-time runner-up. Dutch power AZ Alkmaar awaited Vitas in the Cup final, which was hosted in Rotterdam as a neutral site. Upon arrival, 25,000 fans stood draped in black and yellow and 25,000 dressed in AZ’s red and black. It takes a special mentality to win trophies, and van Hintum said that Miazga’s American mindset led the way for Vitesse.

Soon after Miazga hoisted the Cup in front of a raucous crowd in Arnhem’s usually quiet streets, he earned a chance at some international hardware. Having picked up his first cap for the U.S. Men’s National Team in November 2015, Miazga earned an invite to the USA’s 2017 Gold Cup roster.

While he only earned one appearance in the confederation championship, Miazga once again made his opportunity count. The USA needed a three-goal margin of victory against Nicaragua to clinch the top spot in its group. That result should have rested firmly in hand, but two missed penalty kicks made it a nail-biting fight to the finish for a final goal.

Miazga ultimately answered the call in the 87th minute. As Graham Zusi lined up to take a crucial late-game free kick, Miazga’s former Red Bull teammate Dax McCarty pulled him aside and told him to look for the defender’s lanky six-four frame on the back post. Zusi obliged, sent a booming ball into the box and Miazga headed it home to secure first place. The goal still stands out as a favorite for both of his parents.

With seven caps under his belt, Miazga has taken on an unlikely role as one of the USA’s most-experienced center backs in recent camps. His 2015 debut made him one of the first of his U-20 MNT teammates to break through onto the senior team. Cameron Carter-Vickers, his defensive partner in New Zealand has followed suit, alongside players like Kellyn Acosta and Zack Steffen. Those U-20 alumni look to lead the next generation of the MNT as it attacks the next cycle.

“Anytime you wear the U.S. crest and represent your country, it’s a massive privilege and a huge honor,” Miazga said. “A lot of those guys now, including myself, are starting to establish ourselves within the first team.”

Miazga may not have another opportunity to disrupt the quiet streets of Arnhem. His loan contract, extended from just the 2016-17 season to include the 2017-18 campaign, has wrapped up. Other European cities should take notice, London included. Miazga has made it a habit to seize whatever opportunity comes his way and rise to whatever challenge he faces. Success comes as a natural byproduct. As Miazga’s singular focus sees him soar to new heights, the USA’s center back of the future stands ready to take the reins of the here and now.

“There's a new generation coming up of players that are very talented and hungry to establish themselves in the National Team,” Miazga said. “We have a lot of great young players that can be that next wave of leaders. I'm going to keep working to be a part of that.”

“There's literally physically nothing he can't do. He's good with both feet. He's good in the air. He's very strong. He's got a big frame. He's very fast, he's quick, he's smart, he's competitive.”
– Jesse Marsch
“When you bring an American player, they bring a certain mentality, not only on the pitch but also in your dressing room. He's the first one to come in the morning to training, but he's also the last one to go. And other players, they see Matt as an example.”
– Marc van Hintum