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Lichaj's stock rising with U.S., Villa
When American defender Eric Lichaj played the best game of his young career on Sunday for Aston Villa, helping contain Tottenham star Gareth Bale and turning in a strong performance in a 2-1 loss, some observers might have thought the 22-year old came out of nowhere.
But that performance was the culmination of four years of work and development for the promising fullback.
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It didn’t happen overnight.
Four years ago Lichaj was an 18-year-old University of North Carolina freshman and U.S. Under-20 pool player. He made the little-publicized move of signing with English club Aston Villa, helped by a Polish passport that allowed him to make the move to England without having to worry about a work permit.
Lichaj put in his time with Aston Villa’s reserves for two years before showing enough to merit some first-team playing time in the preseason of 2009. He impressed during a pair of loan deals with League Two side Lincoln City and League One side Leyton Orient and returned to Aston Villa with experience and a real chance to break through with the first team -- especially after signing a new contract before the start of the current season.
Even the surprising resignation of then-Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill couldn’t derail Lichaj’s ascent, with reserve team coach Kevin MacDonald remaining a part of the Villa setup.
Lichaj kept biding his time but ultimately earned minutes in cup competitions before finally getting his chance in Premier League play with a start in Aston Villa’s derby win against Birmingham City earlier this month. Manager Gerard Houllier showed confidence in Lichaj once again on Sunday, handing him a start and the tough task of trying to contain Bale, one of the most dangerous wingers in the world.
Lichaj made the most of the opportunity and effectively neutralized the Welsh superstar, doing so well in fact that Tottenham shifted Bale to the opposite flank. Lichaj even flashed his attacking capabilities late in the match and came within inches of scoring a stoppage time equalizer for the Villans.
As well as he played, Lichaj's good display means more tough challenges against the Premier League’s elite. Aston Villa faces Manchester City on Tuesday, meaning another brutal test for the struggling Villans and another tough matchup for Lichaj, assuming he gets another start.
Even before the Tottenham match, Lichaj had already caught the attention of U.S. national team head coach Bob Bradley, who gave him his first two caps this fall. Lichaj did well in his debut against Colombia in October, and in a 1-0 win against South Africa in November.
Lichaj played well in those first two national team appearances and has the look of being a worthy successor to current starting U.S. right back Steve Cherundolo, whose background is very similar to Lichaj’s.
Back in 1999, Cherundolo was a college underclassman who made the move to Germany to sign with then-second division side Hannover 96. An Illinois native like Lichaj, Cherundolo put in his time with Hannover, helping the club gain promotion to the Bundesliga.
Over the course of the past decade Cherundolo has established himself as a national team regular who has started the past two World Cups. He is now Hannover 96 captain, the only American serving as captain of a team in a top European league.
Cherundolo is still playing at a high level, having turned in one of the better World Cup tournaments on the U.S. team, but he will turn 32 in February and can’t be expected to hold on to the position too much longer.
Enter Lichaj, who has taken pole position in the race to replace Cherundolo. He will face competition from the likes of Jonathan Spector, Sean Franklin and Kevin Alston, but Lichaj is hitting his stride now and has the advantage of seeing playing time in a top league at his natural position -- something his competition can’t say right now.
The past four years have gone about as well as Lichaj could have imagined when he left college at 18 to chase his professional dream. Chances are he hasn’t quite accomplished everything he set out to accomplish when he made the move, but he is well on his way.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.