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Lichaj overcomes nightmare start to score first USMNT goal

Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

PHILADELPHIA – Eric Lichaj was determined not to sulk, even if he had every reason to drop his head and accept his struggles. He was in the midst of one of the worst performances imaginable, one where he almost single-handedly gave a goal away. He failed to prevent sequences that nearly led to several others. Quite frankly, he was in a self-imposed nightmare with thousands looking on.

With just moments before the halftime whistle, that nightmare suddenly turned into a dream with one swift shot, one low flick through the goalkeeper’s legs and into the back of the net. As he slid on the Lincoln Financial Field grass awaiting his teammates’ embrace, Lichaj turned what looked to be a career-defining setback into an improbable resurgence.

Lichaj scored the second of two USMNT goals on Wednesday night, helping lead the way in a 2-0 win over El Salvador in Wednesday’s Gold Cup quarterfinal. It was a stunning rise from a player that one of the worst on the field for the better part of the first 45 minutes.  The second 45, though? Generally calm, composed, cool, much like his finish to end the first half.

After years out in the cold and out of the USMNT picture, Lichaj both squandered and retrieved his USMNT chance all in one 90 minute period.

“I’ve realized that, especially the last two games that I’ve played, it’s never easy,” Lichaj said following Wednesday’s win. “Maybe I took that for granted for the first 30 minutes, but in my head, I thought I was ready. I’ll change something and I’ll look into that. I know we’ll have a video session tomorrow that I’m not going to look forward to because in that first 45, that play in the second half, that’s something I need to look at and get criticized about.

“I don’t look at the good stuff,” he added. “I remember the bad stuff I do in games because I always want to improve. I try not to make myself too comfortable.”

For the first 30 or so minutes, Lichaj certainly didn’t look comfortable. It all came to a head in a sequence that could have and certainly should have seen the USMNT down an early goal.

On the ball about 35 yards out, Lichaj mishit a pass towards Tim Howard, allowing El Salvador’s forward to dart in alone on goal. Lichaj had little time to think. The only thought? To run back as fast as he could to try and atone in any way he can.

He didn’t get there, but Howard did, kicking the shot out of the way. Lichaj admitted he owes the goalkeeper big time, and the moments that followed the save were trying.

Lichaj “needed” the goal, he admitted. In the aftermath of the mistake, he continued to make runs down the right and he kept noticing that the winger wasn’t checking him. With the half dwindling, he took the risk and darted down the middle of the field. Clint Dempsey held the ball and found him, and Lichaj did the rest.

As the ball rolled in, Lichaj ran and ran and ran until he finally felt his legs get heavy. He didn’t know what else to do so he slid, or fell, and awaited his teammates. After all but giving a goal away, Lichaj grabbed one back at the game’s vital moment.

It was a tale of two performances. On one hand, the inexcusable mistakes and blunders that keep players far away from the national team. On the other, the composure and maturity to settle down, get it together and not only score, but step up defensively as the going got tough.

“He hasn’t been with the national team for a number of years,” head coach Bruce Arena said of Lichaj. “He’s a good defender, no question about it. Still needs a little bit more experience at this level, but he fits in well with the team. That’s a position we need him. DeAndre Yedlin was injured for a fair amount last year. We didn’t have all of our games. It’s nice to know that Eric’s a player, perhaps, we can depend on, in that position.

“I’m not looking too far ahead,” Lichaj added. “It would be nice to be picked to make the World Cup team. That’s the ultimate goal, but the way I played in the first 45, Bruce will be saying, ‘We shouldn’t go with Eric probably’, and that’s what I’m thinking. I need to sort that out. That first 45 minutes, I know in my head, is not good enough, and I know I can play better than that.”

Lichaj has come a long way since his last real chance. Back in 2011, the fullback was a member of the U.S. team that lost, 4-2, to Mexico. He played a full 90 as the U.S. fell, and he’s rarely been recalled since. There were sporadic appearances in 2013 and one quick appearance in 2016 but, largely, Lichaj wasn’t a part of the USMNT.

That makes this opportunity mean so much more to the 28-year-old fullback. He wants and needs to get to a final scenario again. He wants and craves a second chance, at both a trophy and the national team.

He’s brought his family along for the ride, mostly because he isn’t sure when it will end. His two children have never seen America besides his parents’ home of Chicago as they’ve spent almost their entire life in England due to his club career. This run means a lot to Lichaj the player, but it’s also a chance for Lichaj the father to show his daughters the world.

So far, they’ve been to Cleveland before flying to Philadelphia for Wednesday’s match. They’ll head to Dallas for the upcoming semifinal against Costa Rica and, if Lichaj gets his way, they’ll get to see California and a Gold Cup final.

It would be quite a resurgence, quite a story, for a player that lived a career’s worth of ups and downs in 90 minutes on Wednesday night.

“I haven’t won anything in my career,” Lichaj said. “I’m 28. It would mean a lot to win, especially with my country. That would be something I would remember forever.”


  1. So torn about this guy. I’ve followed him since his Villa days. His ceiling is high, but his floor is equally low. But ultimately, I’d take him over Zusi as backup RB. He at least makes things happen.

  2. No matter how he played last night, I think he has proven so far this tourney that he should be in the conversation for a backup role on this team going forward. He did not have a great game, but I still felt better watching him struggle than I did watching Zusi or Villafana struggle. Not sure what that means exactly but he has more defensive instincts and grit, which is the priority of defender on this team. No one is perfect, and few have played well this tourney, but I think he deserves a shot.

    • If you want to attack especially in wide spots recovery speed is needed from your backs and wide midfielders. Both Lichaj and Villafana are not burners. Getting forward and linking up with tight passing and unlocking passes Villafana is the best in the player pool with F.Johnson a closer second. However, defending and physicality is a requirement for a LB and RB. This is where Villafana falls off and Lichaj is better. Both Chandler and Yedlin have there yips ball watching and getting caught up field but both of them are the best options at RB. On the left F.Johnson is the best option and Villafana is a distant second.

      • Yeah, right now I have Yedlin and FJ as the starting outside backs with Lichaj and Villafana as the backups. I have never been a fan of Chandler, mostly his on field demeanor and lack of consistency, and I put him at third right now. I would like to see Lichaj at some point on the left side to see how he does there as well.

  3. Lichaj was truly horrible last night. The goal was nice, but a defender is supposed to be judged on how he defends and last night Lichaj was as bad as it gets.

    • How was he in position to even score that goal? Should we give him credit for making a long run or shame him for being ridiculously out of position? He was indeed terrible last night though.That much I am sure of.

      • True, that run should have come from a midfielder. If you notice Lichaj leaves his spot and Nagbe runs back to cover for him. The little things go a long way when it comes to balance and shape

  4. His mistakes in the first half are pretty uncharacteristic for him, that was disappointing. On the other hand, he has been better going forward in this tourney than I expected. I hope he gets another chance so Bruce can have a real good idea whether he can be trusted as a backup. His lack of footspeed will be a problem against elite teams, but that is true for everyone besides Yedlin.

    • I don’t think so. That has been his pattern since he started. He looks good one game and then he makes a bonehead play. There is a reason why he is not in the EPL anymore.

      • Ok fair point johnny. Of course I haven’t seen any Forest games, I was referring to his USNT matches, which is admittedly a small sample size. I guess I like his story and his commitment level more than some others who play his position, and hoping someone could grow into the position that has never really been the same since Cherundolo left. And I wonder who you would consider the best backup rightback, who is so much better than Lichaj?

      • I was trying to not be snarky, I don’t think too many of us have probably seen him play more than ten times and most of those were five years ago. He seems to be the classic back up quarterback, in that by not playing for so long people imagine him as better. I do give him some leeway in that he is just beginning his preseason during this tournament. However, as a veteran of the Championship and some EPL action he shouldn’t be making some of the basic mistakes he’s made in the GC.

        As far RB goes, Yedlin is first choice, Cameron is 2nd with Omar or Miazga at CB, Chandler 3rd, Lichaj 4th. Honestly, I’m not sure with our full compliment that a 3 man back with Yedlin and FJ on the wings, Bradley and Nagbe/Acosta in the CM, and CP as the #10 isn’t better than any four man back we can play. It solves both problems at FB, provides some freedom to change formation if Cameron and Ream are CBs and gives Bradley two midfield options to pass to. It does only put one of Altidore, Wood, and Dempsey on the field though.

  5. and Timmy Chandler better never show his face in a USMNT shirt again… IMHO… he does not care about the shirt… and honestly is pretty terrible on the ball.

    • I agree Chandler has been bad for the Nats and seems disinterested, but he has played well in the Bundesliga which is the same argument you are making for Lichaj in the championship.

  6. Goal or not, nightmare is the only way to describe his performance. Like I said, Zusi being on the field was more an in indictment on Lichaj. I’m not a chandler fan by any stretch and I don’t think he makes much of a case for himself, but Zusi and Lichaj certainly make the case for him. I still put Zusi ahead of Lichaj and I’m guessing we will see that in our next match.

    • Extremely harsh… his play in the second half was more than serviceable (even exlcuding the goal). He could develope into a nice back up for Yedlin. He was player of the year at Forest for a reason. He is a good defender.

      • Not harsh at all. Were you watching the game? Every opportunity Lichaj had to make a mistake he did, with the exception of just holding his ground one time after recovering (from being completely out of position… and that was more El Salvadors inability to execute than anything. I could care less what he was in the championship. It’s the same with chandler, playing well for your club doesn’t mean you play well for the national team. Lichaj won’t be in Russia, promise you that.

      • Just to be clear it was a fan vote for player of the year, on a team that finished two goals above the relegation line.

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