'You've got to keep pushing' -- U.S. defender Matt Miazga isn't worried about the future
LONDON -- As Matt Miazga strolls through the U.S. men's national team hotel near Heathrow Airport outside London, there are no outward signs that he's going through one of the more difficult spells of his professional career. The American defender has always carried himself with a high level of confidence, and this day is no different. The tone in Miazga's voice is one of optimism, with one phrase continually coming up in conversation.
"You've got to keep pushing," he told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview.
The 23-year-old's mood is at odds with his current predicament at club level, though in one sense, he has little choice. The native of Clifton, New Jersey, is currently on loan with Ligue 1 side Nantes from Chelsea, but so far, it hasn't gone as he hoped.
Initially, Miazga was a consistent presence in Nantes' defense, but some poor results saw manager Miguel Cardoso fired just eight games into the season. Miazga then made a poor first impression with new manager Vahid Halilhodzic in a 3-0 loss to Bordeaux, delivering a subpar performance and receiving a yellow card that saw him suspended for the club's next match.
Nantes' form has improved since, with the club claiming 10 points from its past four league matches, but in the meantime, Miazga's situation has deteriorated further. He hasn't been in the matchday squad since the Bordeaux defeat, banished to the reserves instead. There have even been reports that his loan will be cut short in January amid questions about his attitude.
But Miazga isn't thinking about any of those things, and he isn't about to give up, either.
"You've got to learn, you've got to adapt," he said. "Obviously you always want to be playing, you always want to be a part of it. I kind of got stuck in a bad-timing situation with the club, getting suspended and with a new coach [coming in]. Right now I'm not playing, so I have to continue to stay fit, control what I can control and be ready for when my chance comes again."
As for the rumors that the loan will be terminated early, Miazga responds with a laugh and a shake of the head.
"I don't know where those rumors came from but they're obviously not true," he said. "People saw that I was playing every game and then all of a sudden not playing, so people are going to make assumptions, make up rumors and random things up in their head and I guess publish it.
"The reality is that's not true: I'm on loan with Nantes until the end of the season. I lost my starting spot and I've got to earn it back. It's as simple as that."
Such a comment might come off as spin, but there is some substance behind the statements due to the fact Miazga has been in this position before. Back in 2014 with the New York Red Bulls, he started six times in an eight-game midseason stretch before some costly mistakes saw him benched for the rest of the season. The following year, he rebounded and was an ever-present force in the Red Bulls' Supporters' Shield-winning campaign. The next season, his first on loan with Dutch side Vitesse after signing with Chelsea, Miazga also found himself out of the lineup early on only to come back and help the club win its first top-flight trophy in its 125-year history.
Miazga said that his benching in New York left a deep impression, and he watched how veterans like Kosuke Kimura conducted themselves when they were out of the lineup. It's why he's confident he'll be able to work his way back this time as well.
"Kimura was very helpful in terms of always working extra, always pushing yourself to your limits," Miazga said. "Work hard and be ready for your chance. Every time [I've been benched] I've gotten out of the situation, so I've got to keep pushing. It's as simple as that.
"I've seen [bad attitudes] before in the past. You see different scenarios, different sports as well -- a guy with a bad attitude can be a cancer to the team or can be a distraction to the team. You don't want to be that. You want to continue to be positive, help the team any way you can, and continue to train hard and be ready for your chance. I made sure I stayed fit for an opportunity like this, to get called up again."
Without question, Ligue 1 is a considerable step up in quality from the Eredivisie, and even before France's World Cup triumph last summer, Ligue 1 clubs have been lauded for the way they develop players. But there is more to a move than just dealing with matters on the field. There is a new culture to adapt to and, most crucially of all, a new language to pick up. The coaching change, one in which Cardoso's staff spoke English but Halilhodzic's is more limited, drove home that necessity, though it's one that Miazga is well aware of.
"I feel like when you're in a different country, you have to really strive to learn their language and show your intent to immerse yourself," he said. "They're not coming to America to speak English, you're going to France to play football in France. You should learn their language to be able to speak with people, your teammates, the physios."
Miazga said that he's eschewing social media and texting in favor of more time practicing his French. He hopes to get his French to the level where he can "hold a decent conversation" by the end of the season, but in the meantime, he's enjoying what his new surroundings have to offer.
"Every day, you're so excited to see something new, you're always doing something new, meeting new people, seeing new things, new places, ideas," he said. "Constantly in my head I'm always learning, just processing everything I see."
Miazga's immediate focus is Thursday's friendly against England, and it's unlikely the defender will be overawed by the occasion. After all, he was on the field when the U.S. tied France 1-1 just before the World Cup. But given the wealth of talent at England manager Gareth Southgate's disposal, the test should be immense even amid the hubbub caused by Wayne Rooney's inclusion.
"England has obviously evolved as a nation, making the semifinal of the World Cup this past [summer], and obviously they have world-class players playing at big, big clubs," Miazga said. "It's going to be a good challenge for us, and something that we're all looking forward to, to be able to showcase ourselves in a top international game like this."
A good performance from Miazga might also serve another purpose: reminding his club coach of his potential. If that's the case, then it gives Miazga another reason to keep pushing.