PHILADELPHIA — Matt Miazga is growing up fast.
Jumping into the pressure cooker of high-level European soccer at the age of 20 will do that to you, and Miazga wouldn't have it any other way. After shining as a teenager in Major League Soccer and at the Under-20 World Cup, he earned a $5 million transfer to English powerhouse Chelsea. It was a move that some worried might slow the development of one of American soccer's most promising talents. It never worried Miazga though. He knew what he was signing up for.
As Miazga celebrates his 22nd birthday on Wednesday — the same day he and the U.S. national team face El Salvador in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals — he does so as a player whose development has been expedited rather than slowed. This was clear to see in his impressive performance in Saturday's 3-0 Gold Cup victory against Nicaragua, a match that concluded with Miazga scoring the decisive goal that helped the U.S. win its group.
Physically, the 6-foot-4 center back has begun to fill out his once-skinny frame, appearing now as a much stronger defender than the one who left MLS 18 months ago. Technically, Miazga's footwork has improved considerably, as a year starting in the Dutch Eredivisie with Vitesse Arnhem helped him gain not only experience, but confidence with the ball at his feet.
"(Miazga's) path is amazing," U.S. goalkeeper Bill Hamid told Goal. "He's growing, you can tell. The first day of camp he was sharp even though he came off the offseason. He was playing really, really well. I went up to him at the end of the first session. I said, 'Yo Miazga, I see the Dutch system is making you clean with the ball at your feet.' He's pinging the ball left and right and I can tell that is something he's learned over there."
Miazga's skills have clearly improved, but so has his mentality. Speak to him now and you find a young man who is more self-assured and focused than he was as a teenager with the New York Red Bulls. Hear him talk about the experiences of the past year and a half and you realize the move to Europe came at exactly the right time, even if it may have felt a bit early when he left.
"I have aspirations for myself to reach the top, to play at the highest level and challenge myself at the highest level," Miazga told Goal. "I know that going to Europe I’m going to get that challenge. I’m going to become uncomfortable, I have to deal with these situations, and I know that I have to continue to progress, be patient, and work hard, and I know it will work out."
Miazga has no sob stories about homesickness or second guessing his decision to leave the comforts of home. He knew it wouldn't be an easy road at Chelsea, but he also knows the experience of his first half season on the bench at one of the biggest clubs in the world gave him invaluable experience.
"The fact of the matter is, you’re an American and a young player in Europe, you have to go through the process," Miazga said. "I’m controlling what I can control, which is working hard, putting the work in, and to continue to play as well as I can. When an opportunity comes, I need to be ready, and I need to take it. That’s what I’m doing.
"Obviously it’s a different world in Europe. You always have to be on your A game. I know that. I know it will give me strength and shape me into a better player and a person, and I’m confident in my ability and I know it will lead me to my goal."
Miazga's first season after the transfer was spent on Chelsea's bench, which wasn't exactly a year gone to waste. He was able to work under respected Dutch manager Guus Hiddink while also training alongside some of the game's biggest names.
"You go to a big, big club where some of the best players in the world are playing, so the level’s very high, the standard’s very high," Miazga said. "You learn a lot in training. I’m training with Diego Costa, going up against him in one-on-one drills. Playing against top players like that you learn a lot, and at the same time you see their professionalism they have off the field. They hold themselves to a high standard, maintaining their bodies the right way, they eat the right foods. You see how professional they are and you try to learn from that and build that into your own routine."
Among the players Miazga learned from is John Terry, the long-time Chelsea defender who recently left the club and signed with Aston Villa.
"When I first got there he was the first player that came up to me and introduced himself, and gave me his number and said, ‘Look, if you ever need anything at the club or settling in London, I’m here. Just give me a shout and I’ll be glad to help you out,’" Miazga said. "I’ll always remember that."
Miazga's subsequent loan move to Vitesse was met with skepticism initially, but it is difficult to argue against the move now. Miazga became a regular starter for Vitesse, helping the club win its first major trophy when it lifted the Dutch Cup.
The loan may have been seen as Chelsea simply casting aside an unwanted player, but Miazga's insight into just how closely Chelsea worked with him during the loan suggests something much different.
"Chelsea, after last season, was happy with my progression on loan and it was very good because they have a good setup over there, always giving me match analysis after games," Miazga said. "Coming to visit me every four weeks to give my video analysis of how I’m developing, my strengths and things I can work on in my game. They’re always watching every game and it’s all going in the right direction so I know I’m in good hands."
Another loan seems likely for Miazga for the upcoming season, though it remains unclear just where he will play next. Despite the likelihood of another loan, Miazga feels good about his relationship with manager Antonio Conte and believes he has a clear understanding of what he needs to do to break into the Italian's side.
"I worked with him last preseason and saw the way he worked, and the methods he instilled into the team, and his philosophies obviously helped because Chelsea won the league that year," Miazga said. "We've had good discussions. At the end of the day, for me, I need to be getting consistent playing time as a young player in Europe. Building that foundation of consistent games and experience in Europe. That’s about it. I have to continue to prove myself in Europe. I’m a Chelsea player, so the goal is to be on the first team on a consistent basis.
"If I continue working I know the chances will come with the Chelsea first team," Miazga said. "You saw last year a couple of guys that were on loan who came back and got some significant minutes under Antonio Conte."
The improvements Miazga has made in the past year should aid his cause, and have already helped him establish himself with the national team. He has developed sharper passing skills, and a smoother touch on the ball after a season playing in the Dutch league.
"In Holland the philosophy is you play a lot building out of the back, so I was involved in a lot of that," Miazga said. "Also, I’ve been playing left center half, usually in MLS and at Chelsea I played right center back, but in Vitesse I was playing left center back so now I’m capable of playing either or now. I used a lot of my left foot in scenarios on my weaker foot and just getting used to that left side. I definitely feel the improvement. I've definitely got a lot of experience and development in that aspect."
That versatility should also benefit Miazga as he tries to break into a crowded race at center back in the U.S. national team pool. He has already made a good first impression with U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who sang his praises after the first week of the team's pre-Gold Cup camp.
"Matt Miazga has a great future," Arena said earlier this month. "It’s the first time I’ve worked with him. I saw him some years ago playing with the New York Red Bulls. I think he trained pretty well this past week. I’m hopeful of getting him games during the Gold Cup but he continues to grow physically.
"He’s got the makeup of a center back, for sure," Arena added. "He’s gotten better in terms of his passing, he’s a pretty good communicator on the field and I think Chelsea’s doing a good job with him, moving him to different clubs to get experience."
Miazga showed Arena enough to earn a start in Saturday's vital win over Nicaragua, a victory that helped the U.S. avoid a much more difficult quarterfinal against Costa Rica. Even before his big goal, Miazga had already impressed with his steady showing in central defense, which included sharp passing, solid positioning and clear confidence.
What makes Miazga's growth all the more impressive is the fact he's blossoming at a position where Americans have tended to develop a bit older. His start against Nicaragua made him the youngest American to ever start in central defense for the U.S. in an official competition, and Miazga hopes he can add a World Cup roster spot to that list of accomplishments next summer in Russia. He's facing a stacked field of contenders, but his impressive growth over the past year makes him a very good candidate if he can continue improving.
"The goal is to be involved in the World Cup," Miazga said. "That’s always a dream of every player, and it’s one of my goals to represent my country at the World Cup. Obviously, I have a year left and there’s steps to be taken. I have to continue to progress and get consistent game time and show myself."
The thought of Miazga making the 2018 World Cup would have been considered unrealistic as recently as a year ago, when he was still seen as a skinny kid who had a lot of maturing to do. One year later, he has made it clear he's not a kid anymore. He's a determined young man who is growing up quickly, and is closing in fast on dreams that once seemed too far for even his long arms to reach.