When Eric Lichaj and his brothers were little, their father would take them to soccer games at Soldier Field, the boys wearing jerseys from their parents’ native Poland or those of Peter Nowak and the Chicago Fire’s other Polish players.
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The Lichaj family will be back at Soldier Field on Saturday night for the U.S. exhibition against Poland, part of the early preparations for the 2014 World Cup. This time, though, they’ll be in U.S. jerseys – preferably ones with Eric’s name and number on the back.
The 21-year-old defender couldn’t have scripted a better scenario for his first call-up to the senior national team: in his hometown, against the country where both of his parents were born.
Born near Nowy Targ, a city about 50 miles south of Krakow, Ann and Stan Lichaj (LEE-high) both came to the United States before they were teenagers, settling in Chicago. Stan had played soccer in Poland – "That was a big thing; we played soccer in the summer and hockey in the wintertime" – and he continued after moving to the United States.
When Ann and Stan had kids of their own, Stan passed the game along. By the time Eric was old enough to play, Stan was coaching his older two sons.
"It was a lot easier for him to play up with his older brothers," Stan Lichaj said. "Rather than go to an extra game, it was a lot easier for me to coach one team and have him play on his older brothers’ team. He would observe – watch, watch, watch – and then play. And they played a lot."
At 14, Lichaj joined the residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and helped the U.S. qualify for the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in 2005. He signed with the University of North Carolina, but missed what would have been his freshman season with a broken foot.
Instead of staying at Carolina, Lichaj made an unusual move: He went to Europe, signing with Aston Villa. As a dual citizen of the United States and Poland, he didn’t need the work permit that so often closes off opportunities to young Americans with little experience.
"When I was with the under-17 national team, my agent now brought me over to trials in England," Lichaj said. "I just liked it there and, ever since I went to my first trial, I wanted to make it there."
Villa has brought the 5-foot-11 defender along slowly. He played with the reserves his first season, then was loaned to Lincoln City of League Two, the fourth tier of England’s professional leagues. He moved up to Leyton Orient of League One last spring, and scored his first professional goal April 17 against Stockport.
Finally, on Aug. 19, he made his debut with Aston Villa’s first team, playing at Rapid Vienna in a Europa League qualifier.
"The first year I was there, I came in and broke my foot again – the other foot. That first year wasn’t very good for me because I was in recovery and I didn’t have full fitness basically the whole season," Lichaj said. "After that first season, I’ve been happy. I’ve been steadily going up and up.
"Hopefully, I’ll just keep progressing."
Villa has faith he will. It signed him to a new, three-year contract in August, and new manager Gerard Houllier included the young American in the lineup for his first game in charge, a 3-1 win over Blackburn in the League Cup on Sept. 22.
"He’s a lad who works really hard in training and always gives it everything he’s got," veteran Villa defender Luke Young said on the club’s website. "He’s strong, he’s quick and he wants to learn. He’ll definitely be pushing everyone at the back for a place."
He hopes to do the same for the United States.
Though Steve Cherundolo seems ageless and Carlos Bocanegra was mostly solid, the backline had mixed results at the World Cup in South Africa and will likely have to be rebuilt before the next World Cup, in Brazil. Cherundolo, Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit all are or will be 31 this year. Oguchi Onyewu continues to recovery from his devastating knee injury last year. And holdovers Jonathan Bornstein and Jonathan Spector have been erratic, creating openings that could be filled by prospects such as Lichaj, Clarence Goodson, Chad Marshall, Omar Gonzalez, Kevin Alston, Tim Ream, Ike Opara and Gale Agbossoumonde.
A guest at the U.S. training camp ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras last year, this week was Lichaj’s first full call-up. In addition to Saturday’s game, the U.S. plays Colombia on Tuesday in Chester, Pa.
"Just overall progression," Lichaj said of his goals. "That’s how I’ve been going the last couple of years, progressing."
Because he has a Polish passport, Lichaj could have been on the other side of the field Saturday. But neither he – nor his family – would have it any other way.
"That’s my goal for the next World Cup," Lichaj said, "to get a starting spot for the U.S. team."