YOUNG AMERICAN BUILDS ON POSITIVE SEASON
With the English season now in its final weeks, American right back Eric Lichaj has had a productive season in which he has played with three different teams and has scored his first professional goal.
The season began with Lichaj playing significant time with Aston Villa in the preseason. He played particularly well in the 2009 Peace Cup in Spain in July and August. Lichaj played in every game in that tournament, which featured teams such as Juventus, Real Madrid, Porto, Malaga, and Lyon.
In the championship game, Aston Villa defeated Juventus in a shootout following a 0-0 deadlock after 120 minutes. In that game, Lichaj played every minute and shut down many Juventus players including Alessandro Del Piero.
"It was actually really, really hard. It was games every other day," Lichaj recalled to YA. "It was really hard work for me because I played in every game. I enjoyed every minute a lot because of the teams I was playing against. I also got to play against really good players. Playing against Del Piero especially was a great experience."
"It couldn't have ended better with the winning of the championship and everything," he continued. "That built my confidence up as well."
Following that tournament, it was unclear where Lichaj would play the season. Initially, he travelled with Aston Villa senior team but, still being just 20 years at the time, the club decided he was not ready yet.
"After the Peace Cup, I traveled with the team a couple of times but they soon bought [defender] Habib Beye," Lichaj explained. "So I kind of knew at that point they thought I wasn't quite ready yet. After they bought him I knew I would have to go out on loan."
Soon after Villa's acquisition of Beye from Newcastle, Lichaj was loaned out to League Two club Lincoln City. While the club was playing in the fourth division of English soccer, he was pleased with the experience and feels as if his time with the club was beneficial for his confidence and development.
"I really enjoyed it at Lincoln City," Lichaj said of his loan to the League Two team. "It was the first time I was actually playing for first team and the games actually meant something. It wasn't just playing in reserves anymore. It was a good experience being there."
"It built my confidence a bit more from what I used to have," The Downers Gove, Illinois native continued. "It got me used to how teams play in the lower leagues and how I need to adapt my game to what they do so that I can help them out effectively."
Lichaj's loan to Lincoln City was extended once but eventually ended in December of 2009. With that ending, Lichaj returned to Aston Villa where he would continue to play with the reserves.
In February however, Aston Villa again sent him out on a one month loan only this time it was to a League One team in Leyton Orient. At Leyton Orient, Lichaj was asked to play an important role and bolster the defense of the London based club that was flirting with relegation.
"After the first game it was fine in adjusting here at Leyton," Lichaj said of his initial impressions of his new club. "It's a bit quicker and people are a lot stronger at League One from League Two. You can certainly tell the difference."
Lichaj's loan has been extended until the completion of the season. His time at Leyton has gone well and the club has earned valuable points in recent games and avoiding relegation is now within sight.
"Everything here at Leyton is going well," Lichaj explained. "We have played well recently. I think if we get a win points in our final two games, we will be safe from relegation. Hopefully I can help them out with doing that. "
In their most recent game, Lichaj would play a significant role in the club's victory. In the 80th minute with Leyton Orient holding a slim 1-0 lead over Stockport County, Lichaj collected the ball about 40 yards out. He took a few dribbles and beat a few defenders. Once about 20 meters from the goal, Lichaj unleashed a powerful shot that beat the Stockport keeper to the lower left corner and gave Leyton Orient a 2-0 lead which they would hold onto. For Lichaj, it was his first professional goal.
"Yeah it was great. For the rest of the game I couldn't stop smiling," Lichaj said proudly. "The fans were chanting 'USA.' It was a nice feeling."
So while Lichaj looks to finish his loan to Leyton Orient on a high note and preserve their status in League One, his plans for next year are still unclear. He figures that he will talk to Aston Villa's coaches after the season about staying with Villa or going out on loan again to a higher profile club.
"They haven't talked to me about next season yet," Lichaj discussed. "I think [Aston Villa's manager Martin O'Neil] is more concerned with how the team plays to finish this season. They can still get fourth place and hopefully with a bit of luck that can happen. Probably after the season or the beginning of the preseason we will talk about my next season.
"Right now, I obviously would want to be playing at Villa. But if that initially doesn't happen next season I would want to go out on loan to possibly a Championship club so I can keep playing. I need to keep getting games so I keep progressing."
Since Lichaj is only 21, his focus right now is on improving his game to the point where he can contribute to a major team such as Aston Villa which has hopes of playing in the UEFA Champions League. One of the areas he feels he needs to improve most is his physical strength which is an area of great importance for defenders in the Premier League.
"Right now I am just trying to get stronger. I don't think I am strong enough because sometimes I get pushed off the ball a bit too much. I also need to work on my left foot a little more. Other than that, I am just trying to work on everything. "
Lichaj said that while he has had on-field success this year, he also has not improved at the rate he expected. But he is still determined to keep working so that next season can be a break-through year for him.
"It's probably going a little bit slower than I had planned," Lichaj admitted. "I know I am going to keep on working hard so if the time comes I am going to capture it. I am in no rush, I am still just 21. Everything this year has been going well and hopefully next year it can get even better. I am progressing slowly but I am getting there."
One reason why Lichaj is optimistic about his development is that the coaching he has received at Aston Villa as been very important in his development. He joined the Birmingham club in 2007 after leaving the University of North Carolina after just one year. Prior to this season's loan stints with Leyton Orient and Lincoln City, he had been a consistent starter with Aston Villa's reserve teams.
"[Coach O'Neil] has helped me out a lot," Lichaj said of the coaching at Aston Villa. "He and all the assistant coaches, John Robertson, Steve Walford and even our reserve coach Kevin MacDonald. All of them have helped me out loads. When I got there three years ago they shaped me into the player I am now and I enjoy the way I play. Everything they have told me and taught me has helped me out a lot and helped me progress. They know what they are talking about."
While Lichaj is hoping to continue his progress with Aston Villa, he is also anxious to work his way into the United States national team during the course of the 2014 World Cup cycle. Last summer he was called up by US head coach Bob Bradley as a guest player for the camp which preceded two important World Cup qualifiers back in June.
Lichaj had previously played for the US U-20 national team but missed the 2007 U20 World Cup due to an injury. The opportunity of playing with the senior team, even if as a guest player for the camp, proved to be a good experience for him.
"It was an honor to be called up to the first team," said Lichaj of the experience of being in camp with the USMNT. "Maybe in the future it will hopefully happen again. It was a great experience. I knew a couple of the guys coming in so it was great to play with some familiar faces. "
With the 2014 cycle starting immediately after this summer's World Cup, many young American players will be hoping to make their way onto the team as it builds toward the following World Cup in Brazil. Lichaj has already proven to be on Bob Bradley's radar but the US could very easily be playing under a new coach when the new cycle begins. Lichaj understands that for him to make his way into the US player pool, he must continue to play well at the club level.
"I would love to play for the United States. It would be an honor to do that," Lichaj explained. "Hopefully it will happen soon and if I am able to play well for the club here maybe I can get recognized. But first I will have to do well here [with my club] so that I can make camps there."
Next year will certainly be very important to Lichaj on many different levels. Aston Villa will largely use his performance next year to determine whether or not he has a future with the club. A successful year could see him gradually pave his way into Aston Villa's first team and the US national team. Lichaj is aware of the high stakes that lay ahead in the coming months.
"I need a really big year next season to define what I will be doing in the future," Lichaj concluded. "Next year will be a very big and important year for me."