It hasn't been difficult to tell just how young the current U.S. national team is. With an average age of 22, and boasting several teenagers, the U.S. squad presently in camp ahead of Monday's friendly against Bolivia almost feels like a youth national team.
It also boasts some not-so-old veterans like 22-year-old Matt Miazga, who are realizing how times are changing.
Miazga is far from old, but his six years of experience as a professional — half spent in MLS with the New York Red Bulls and half spent at Chelsea and on loan to Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem — gives him more experience than all but a handful players currently in U.S. camp. He has made the transition from awestruck rookie to 19-year-old starter to $5 million transfer target, to regular starter and standout defender for a team in a respected European league.
"I remember when I was with Red Bulls, and at Chelsea as well, and my first few caps with the national team, when you’re playing rondos, the boxes, five-v-twos, the youngest always starts in the middle," Miazga told Goal in an exclusive interview. "I don’t have to start in the middle anymore. So then I realize, wow, time flew by, I’m the old guy now."
He is poised to add national team starter to that run, and he's also ready to add leader to that list. At a time when the U.S. needs new players to follow to replace a long-standing generation of stars who are being phased out in the wake of the team's recent World Cup qualifying failure, Miazga is on a fast track to leading. He pointed to his growth into a leadership role at Vitesse as one of his greatest improvements in what was arguably his best club season to date.
"I felt more confidence and more trust from the coach this year for sure," Miazga said. "But also, I just thought I’m getting older. I’m in a position where you need to be commanding, you need to communicate a lot, you need to be a leader. And I just kind of took it upon myself to be that leader, to be more of a presence and help my team-mates out any way I can. Organize and just be prepared for everything."
The 6-foot-4-inch defender understands full well how important having strong leaders can be to a team. He has played alongside the likes of Thierry Henry and John Terry on the club level, and he hasn't forgotten what it was like being a youngster dropped into a national team.
"When I was first brought up, 2015, it was still that era of the older generation," Miazga said. "The Tim Howards and Clint Dempseys, and you always looked up to them. When I was growing up, in 2006 and 2010, these are the guys you were looking up to. I remember when I came into camp you really felt like you’re here because these guys have been here such a long time.
"But now, I’m getting older, everyone’s getting older, and I think there’s a new wave, a new generation of players coming in," he continued. "That’s normal, it happens in every transition. Players are getting older, and young players are coming up, and that’s how it goes."
Miazga heads towards the summer playing for two teams in states of flux. He is due to return to Chelsea this summer, at a time when Antonio Conte's tenure as manager reportedly set to end, with Maurizio Sarri expected to replace him. Regardless of who the manager is at Stamford Bridge, Miazga feels his two seasons starting for Vitesse have helped him polish his game to a point where he can compete for a place with Chelsea's first team.
"I’m confident in my abilities. I’m for sure ready for the next level," said Miazga, who also wouldn't rule out a return to Vitesse. "I’m a confident player. I know what I can do, I know what I can bring. I just need to control what I can control. Every time I have a chance, every time I have an opportunity to play, try to make an impact, try to impress and play well, and try to win football games."
Miazga's first season at Chelsea saw him struggle in the limited minutes he was given by then-manager Guus Hiddink. He was then sent on loan when Conte arrived as manager.
"I wouldn’t say I wasn’t ready, because at the time you think you’re ready," Miazga said. "But then you realize as you’re getting older and you’re playing more football games and getting better and improving and analyzing and all that stuff, you realize how much you improve and how much more I’ve added to my game, and how much more assured I am of myself.
"That’s the way it should be. You don’t want to stay stagnant. You want to keep improving," Miazga said. "I’m not trying to be the best version of myself at 20 years old. I want to keep improving every year, and keep adding to my game, and being the best I can be year by year. It would be bad for me to say that at 20-21 years old I’m peak product, I’m not getting any better, because I’m always going to strive for more, strive for consistency, for perfection."
Miazga is in U.S. camp hoping to build on what have been some strong performances in the starting lineup. They began with his first national team start, in last summer's Gold Cup. The U.S. needed a three-goal win to win its group, and Miazga headed home the goal that gave the Americans the 3-0 win they needed.
"It boosts your confidence. It was my third cap and I was scoring a goal on my home soil," he said. "These are things you dream of, you envision. I always envisioned myself being a national team player, playing big games for the national team, scoring goals. It was a good feeling. I was happy about it, but I was more happy about the performance, that we won and how I played. The goal was just a cherry on top. And we got a clean sheet. I like clean sheets more than me scoring my own goal.
"That was my first start for the national team. I felt like, okay, I got my first 90 minutes, scored a goal, got a clean sheet in a fairly important game. It was in the Gold Cup, in a competition, and it helped us get first place. I was like, okay, let’s build on it now, let’s continue to focus, and push myself along."
Miazga, along with long-time youth teammate and close friend Cameron Carter-Vickers, are seen as the future of the U.S. central defense, and the upcoming friendlies against Bolivia, Ireland and France should offer a good showcase of the tandem that helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals of the 2015 Under-20 World Cup.
Miazga isn't shying away from the label, and the case can be made that he and Carter-Vickers are the present of the U.S. central defense — at least while John Brooks remains out of the picture. Miazga isn't just aiming for a regular starting role, he wants to be a leader on the team, and a player who young newcomers turn to, in much the way he turned to mentors in the early stages of his career.
"The group here is pretty young. I’m one of the more experienced players here. That’s personally good for me, to try and help these younger guys, because I always liked it when older guys take you under their wing and help you integrate more," Miazga said. "It happened to me at Red Bull, Chelsea, so on and so forth, even in my first few caps with the national team. So I’m going to try and help these young guys as well. I know a few guys, like (Matt) Olosunde and (Josh) Sargent, so I’m going to try and help them. We have a young group, and hungry group, and we’re going to work hard and try to establish ourselves."
That work begins on Monday against Bolivia.
"I’m excited. I think all the guys are excited to take on this challenge of three games,' Miazga said. "France is going to be a big test, but you can’t look too far ahead. We have Bolivia first, make sure we come out flying and ready for that game, and we’re playing on home soil so we’ve got to put in a good performance. But like I said, it’s a good challenge. Any time it’s the national team it's a big privilege. You’ve got enjoy it and give it your all."