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Nov 30, 2008

Lichaj making his mark in the reserves

Slowly but surely since the arrival of Brooklyn-born sports tycoon Randy Lerner, the American contingent has risen at Aston Villa, the club Lerner's owned since 2006.

Veteran keeper Brad Friedel, still one of the best in the business at 37, signed from Blackburn in the offseason, and the man labeled as the future No. 1 at Villa Park, former Chivas USA stalwart Brad Guzan, joined a few days later, in August.

Friedel, though, wasn't the first U.S. player to move to Villa, one of only four English teams to win the European Cup or its successor, the Champions League. Eric Lichaj, a defender from Illinois, got there first when he inked a two-year deal plus options in July 2007.

The U.S. U-20 international was snapped up during Villa's preseason tour of the U.S. that summer, even though he had a foot injury. He impressed during his time with the Chicago Magic, a prominent youth side Guzan also played for.

"I've been liking it here,'' Lichaj said. "The only thing is that I don't get to see my family, which takes a little while to get used to. Other than that everything is going really well soccer-wise. I came in injured and wasn't too happy the first year, but so far from preseason until now I've been very happy with how I'm progressing.''

The newly turned 20-year-old didn't need to go through the fuss of landing a work permit, the biggest headache for Americans hoping to ply their trade in Europe. His parents, Stan and Ann, were born in Poland, which joined the European Union in 2004, and Lichaj owns a Polish passport.

He's been a regular with the reserves this season, no easy feat: Villa's youth system is regarded as one of the finest in England, with the Villans finishing first in their reserve league in 2007-08 and winning five of seven matches so far this term. Gabriel Agbonlahor, already one of the most feared strikers in the Premier League thanks to his blistering pace, and midfield captain Gareth Barry, a regular with England, are two of the academy products in the senior team under much respected boss Martin O'Neill.

Lichaj escaped a potentially serious injury against Arsenal in late September, reacting quickly to minimize the effects of what was described on Villa's Web site as a "horror tackle'' by Arsenal midfield prospect Henri Lansbury in the dying minutes of a 4-1 reserve victory. Lansbury was shown a straight red card.

"He came in just really hard,'' Lichaj said. "Luckily I just jumped like right before. It actually wasn't too bad. But it could've been worse.''

More pleasant was the preseason.

Injuries to squad members handed Lichaj the chance to feature in the first team against lower-division Lincoln City and Walsall in July and rub shoulders with the likes of Agbonlahor, Barry and Norwegian striker John Carew. A miscommunication with keeper Elliot Parish that led to a Walsall goal aside, things didn't turn out so bad.

"It was nice to just go and like experience the locker room,'' he said. "It was nice playing with everyone, and I got a good feel for how it is.''

Lichaj began his soccer career in earnest with the Magic, named the top youth club in the country from 2005 to 2007. He was spotted at 11 by Magic founder and former director of soccer Mike Matkovich, now an assistant coach at Chivas USA. Lichaj's older brother, Andrew, played under Matkovich and is a midfielder at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"I knew then Eric was a special player," Matkovich said.

Still, it wasn't easy convincing Lichaj's parents their son should devote much of his time to soccer -- he was a good student and had dabbled in music. Eventually they relented and Matkovich "laid out a course"' to elevate him to the next level.

His first brush with a big European side came when Matkovich brought Lichaj, Will Johnson, Quavas Kirk and Taylor Waspi to AS Monaco, which has an allegiance with the Magic. Monaco asked Kirk and Waspi, currently with D.C. United and the University of Wisconsin, respectively, to spend time at its academy. Monaco did not invite Johnson, now at Real Salt Lake, or Lichaj to the academy. That surprised Matkovich, given he thought Lichaj had the most potential among the foursome.

According to Matkovich, Lichaj's strengths include his pace, positioning and ability to think on the pitch.

"You can play him at almost every position, and he won't hurt you,'' he said. "Mentally he's tough enough to go to Europe and make it, whereas a lot of guys in the American system don't have a chance. They think they do, but they don't because mentally they're not tough enough.''

Lichaj, who spends his time away from the field surfing the Internet, watching movies and playing the occasional video game, is hoping to make the step up in the relatively near future.

"It's always nice to play in the first team and playing in preseason friendlies was a good experience,'' he said. "So [getting in] as soon as possible would be great, but if it takes time, I'll be patient.''

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.

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