For the past several years, Eric Lichaj has been in and out of the U.S. Men’s National Team picture. On the club level, he’s thrived as a member of Nottingham Forest and always kept himself in view of the USMNT. However, that view rarely resulted in call-ups and chances to prove himself as a legitimate candidate at either fullback position.
Luckily for Lichaj, that chance has finally come, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
With less than a year before the World Cup kicks off, Lichaj is back with the USMNT. Since breaking through and seemingly emerging in the months leading up to the 2011 Gold Cup, the Nottingham Forest defender’s international career has been sporadic to say the least. There were two appearances in 2013 and then radio silence until last May, when Lichaj rejoined the USMNT for a pre-Copa America tune-up against Puerto Rico.
The 28-year-old defender has always seemingly been just outside the USMNT roster. Even as Jurgen Klinsmann rotated fullback after fullback, Lichaj never quite got his chance. Now, Lichaj will look to use this summer’s Gold Cup as his big opportunity as he looks to impress Bruce Arena with a World Cup in view.
“It’s always a good feeling to play for you country, to represent your country. It’s always an honor,” Lichaj said. “When I was younger, I would always watch the national team, so it’s something I’m really proud of, to wear the crest. I’m just going to try my hardest and it’s an opportunity for everybody in the squad to stake their claim for a World Cup spot in a year’s time. I’m working towards that goal. That’s my ultimate goal: to try and show myself this camp.”
Throughout his time in England, Lichaj has thrived. After several up and down years that included a slew of loan spells, Lichaj left Aston Villa for Nottingham Forest in 2013. Since, Lichaj has made over 130 appearances for the club while earning honors as the club’s 2016-17 Player of the Year.
Now, he’s being asked to parlay that club form into a strong national team effort. He’s joined on the squad by fellow fullbacks like Jorge Villafana, Graham Zusi and Justin Morrow but Lichaj’s ability to play on either side of the defense should be a valuable asset for Arena throughout the Gold Cup.
“I wouldn’t say frustration. I always knew I was maybe in the picture a little bit,” Lichaj said. “I would try and keep myself fit and consistent for my club, which I have done over the last two seasons. I played over 40 games last year. I was voted club player of the year, so for all of the work the last couple of years, I’m back in camp. Hopefully, I can prove myself and do well the next couple of games.”
When looking at the big picture, Lichaj does have a legitimate chance at pushing for a World Cup spot. As things stand, Villafana and DeAndre Yedlin appear to be the first team starters, but backup spots are certainly up for grabs. Zusi has been in the picture as a right back while veterans like DaMarcus Beasley, Greg Garza and Timmy Chandler are all certainly in the mix at fullback positions.
Knowing that, Lichaj understands that this Gold Cup is his big chance. He’s one of several players looking to impress Arena. It’s a camp loaded with competition as each and every player on the squad knows that there’s a bigger goal in mind: a World Cup.
“We want to continue to build on what we started in January and improve the program,” Arena siad. “Hopefully we find other players that can compete for spots for the camps in September and October, and then players that will continue to move forward and can possibly envision being part of our team in Russia in 2018.”
“I think that’s with every team you play for, whether it’s in MLS or England or anywhere else. There’s always competition for your spot and I think all of the guys know that,” Lichaj added. “If you’re not on your A game, I don’t think you’ll be playing many games. I’m going to work as hard as I can to get into that starting lineup.”