Timing is perfect for Lichaj’s first US call-up

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.

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.”