Timing is perfect for Lichaj’s first US call-up
When Aston Villa defender Eric Lichaj and his brothers were
little, their father would take them to football matches at Soldier
Field, the boys wearing jerseys from their parents’ native Poland
or those of Peter Nowak and the Chicago Fire’s other Polish
The Lichaj family will be back at Soldier Field on Saturday for
the United States’ friendly 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 21-year-old 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 (80 kilometers) 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 football 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 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
”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
Villa has brought 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
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 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.
”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.”