Rumors, rumors, rumors. Much like the rest of the world, the January transfer market in North America is a time where pretty much every half-baked rumor or shred of gossip is given some level of credence.
More often than not these rumors are proven to be unfounded, especially when it comes to Major League Soccer, but every once in a while things do come together and a rumor becomes a reality.
Such was the case last week when Chelsea Football Club announced that they had signed New York Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga to a long-term contract.
For a footballing world that is accustomed to aging superstars going to MLS and most North American players moving to middle-tier European sides this move was a change from the status quo.
So just who is Matt Miazga and why is this move such a big deal at least for the United States? Miazga, 20, is considered to be one of the top young American defenders and is one of the first players ever to sign a European contract after coming from a Major League Soccer youth academy (Anderlecht’s Andy Najar is the only other MLS Homegrown Player to sign a professional contract in Europe).
He made over 32 appearances for the New York Red Bulls in his short professional career and has featured for the United States at the under-20 World Cup.
Speaking strictly from an American perspective, there is very little not to like about situation. With this move Miazga joins a very select few of American players who have ever signed with one of the top clubs in Europe. Much like the rest of the world, players come to Europe either as youth players or as seasoned professionals. In either case American or MLS players have struggled to make a career abroad.
Depending upon one’s definition of a top club, only Brad Friedel (Liverpool-Tottenham), Tim Howard (Everton), John Harkes (Sheffield Wednesday), Clint Dempsey (Fulham,) and Michael Bradley (AS Roma) really qualify under this criteria and their success with larger clubs was spotty at best.
To their credit Friedel, Howard, and Harkes each won a League Cup respectively and Howard did win the FA Cup with Manchester United. But when one considers that America’s soccer reset occurred twenty-six years ago that is a rather slender list of accomplishments.
This is precisely why there was such excitement this week when United States under-17 player Christian Pulisic made an appearance for Borussia Dortmund. The difference between Pulisic and Miazga though is that Pulisic, like Gedion Zelalem of Arsenal and Julian Green of Bayern Munich came up through their club’s respective academy system. Miazga, like Howard, came up through Major League Soccer and signed a contract with his hometown club, the New York Red Bulls.
There is a certain level of vindication that American supporters feel about this, that their clubs can produce players of note and sell them to a club that they watch on a Saturday or Sunday morning. When it is a club like Chelsea there is an even higher level of satisfaction.
While all of this well and good there are still some concerns. The first of which should be the timing of this. With Chelsea likely to have another manager in the summer Miazga faces the uncertainty of not being perceived as important with his new manager.
The number of players at top clubs who have fallen out of favor with new managers simply because of when they were signed could likely fill up an entire first division. Managers want to bring in ‘their own’ players and in particular their own young players to build around. Miazga will likely need to impress those above Mr. Hiddink in order to remain at the top of the fold at Stamford Bridge.
There is also the issue of Chelsea’s roster. Much has been made about the sheer size of Chelsea’s roster. The club currently has over 30 players out on loan including nine defenders. The good news for Miazga is that the club appears to be wanting to hold on to him and not place him out on loan.
Even if he does not crack the starting roster for every match getting the chance to learn from the likes of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic should help. But young players need match-time and it is difficult to see where that will come.
That being said, being on loan is also not the end of the world. Miazga is 20 and the length of the career of a defender is often longer than that of a forward or a midfielder. If Chelsea were to place him on loan it is still conceivable that he ends up with a quality side and grows as a player.
It does make things a bit more complicated as players on loan often get lost in the shuffle when managerial changes are made.
Perhaps the biggest change for Miazga will be that he is no longer a big fish in a small pond. While in Major League Soccer and with the Red Bulls he was seen as a major prospect, at Chelsea he will be a promising player, but just another player. MLS may be a growing league but it still does not have the same impact as a global club like Chelsea.
Moving from a club who are maybe followed by thousands of people to a club who are followed by millions of people is a very large leap and not every player can adapt.
But the real question is not necessarily if Chelsea made a good signing but if Miazga can step up to playing. Only he knows the answer to that and it is not a question that can be answered quickly or easily.