Let’s rewind to the year 1996. I’m sitting at a small soccer field in the Midwest, outside of Chicago, watching my brother’s match for the Downers Grove Roadrunners, whom I also played for at the time. After his game, he said to me, “Did you see that kid over there?” “No, why?” I replied. My brother went on to explain to me. “He’s my age, by far the best player in the club around my age bracket, and usually plays 2-3 years above our age group”, he shot back. I stopped by a few of the club’s other games and practices and quickly learned and observed that this kid was dribbling circles around everyone. This young star racked up massive amounts of goals on people 3-4 years older than him with grace and precision. His touches were perfect. Even my father, who doesn’t know much about soccer, proclaimed, “every time that guy kicks the ball, something good happens”. Eric Lichaj got better and starred for one of the top clubs in Chicago, the Chicago Magic (also known as one of the premier national clubs here in the states) and continued collecting trophies, including a club player of the year for his age group in 2004. He honed his skills playing against his brothers (his brother Andrew was a solid college player at IIT in Chicago). Eric’s parents are polish immigrants and he grew up following the Chicago Fire and often being coached by his father. Most American youngsters don’t fancy football after about 8 years old. It seems that this kid was living and breathing the world’s game every minute of his childhood. How does this translate?
When you excel for a club like the Chicago Magic, you get recognized. In 2003, at age 14, he joined the US MNT in the junior U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida. He had now caught the eyes of the U.S. Soccer Federation and people knew he was something special. In 2006, he received a scholarship to go play for the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, one of the top men’s soccer programs in the country. Unfortunately, he broke his foot and his action was limited. Then, what happened? A little known club (that’s a joke) called Aston Villa of the English Premier league came calling. Shortly thereafter, he signed a professional contract and was working his way up through the Aston Villa reserve system and enjoying stints for Lincoln City and Leyton Orient (lower division teams in England). I assume the Villa trainers (who are known for breeding great players) wanted him to sharpen his skills and toughness. The EPL is a physical and often grueling day-to-day grind. But, let’s clarify something first: There aren’t many Americans in the EPL. I count 8 (maybe 9-10 if you count Landy cakes and others). To even get the opportunity to play for an EPL club team’s system across the pond is a huge privilege and honor. Many foreigners cannot hack it. To be recruited for one of these teams at the age of 18, you have to truly be something special. Is Mr. Lichaj the future of the U.S. defense? Should we have him dye his hair red and grow a gow-tee?
My fellow Downers Grovian has an immense amount of talent. He finally got called up to the Senior Men’s National Team for two games in the next 5 days. He may win his first CAP against his parents’ homeland, Poland, on Saturday in his childhood city of Chicago (at Soldier Field) or possibly have to wait until the USA faceoff Tuesday against Colombia in Chester, PA. Along with Jonathan Spector and Jermaine Jones, the USA is building up its defensive attack. I believe the Chicago-bred trio will lead its new crop of young and fiery players into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Don’t get me wrong. I have an incredible amount of respect for Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Bornstein, Gooch, DeMerit, etc. However, I think Bob Bradley needs to shift his focus onto younger players like Lichaj and execute some type of a rehaul or new strategy/player rotation. For example, Lichaj brings more of an offensive presence, someone who can push up more on the wings like Sergio Ramos, Maicon, Pique, Vidic, etc. Also, even though he didn’t play in the World Cup and has his critics, I think having Spector (plays for West Ham in the EPL) and Lichaj on the wings could produce some phenomenal results. Above all, they are energetic youngsters. Experience will always be important as we build up to the next World Cup but we cannot rely on players between the ages of 32-35 who have not produced the results we are looking for.
So why compare him to Lalas? Both are Midwest boys (Michigan and Illinois) with European ties, Alexi’s father, is from Greece. Lichaj probably even has better skills than Lalas. He grew up playing more of a midfielder/striker role. He has a special throw-in. I have seen and read about his passion for the game. He has been on the EPL and USA’s radar for a while now. Also, he can be a bit crazy at times in his style, but plays with a certain gritty class and panache just like Lalas. Lalas made an impact at Italy with Padova and it revolutionized his career. This could do the same for Lichaj. Lichaj is a winner and has done well wherever he has gone. His experience now trumps any player that comes out of the MLS around his age. Villa has renewed this 21yr old’s contract for 3 more years. The Birmingham organization has spoken and confirmed that they know Lichaj is for real. Bob Bradley has finally made the call, too. Let’s see how he does on Saturday but here’s to hoping we see him starting on the field in South America in 2014.
About the Author
Written by Timothy Ashe Jr.
Tim was born and raised in Downers Grove, IL (a suburb of Chicago). He graduated with a degree in Political Science and Spanish from the University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign and also holds University English Language Excellence certificates. He's fluent in Spanish and teaches both English and Spanish in his spare time. He's a Real Madrid and Chicago Fire aficionado and is partial towards the EPL and LFP. His hope is that the game of soccer can continue to grow in the U.S.A. and for our men's national team to eventually win the World Cup.