Matt Miazga might be focused on his club future in France, but it is not lost on him how much his experience in the Netherlands helped to mold him into the more polished and driven player that he is today.
Miazga recently joined Ligue 1 side FC Nantes from Chelsea on a season-long loan with an option to buy. The centerback’s sights are admittedly set on helping the French club earn a place in European competition and enjoying a strong season personally so as to continue to work his way up the football food chain. It was not that long ago when Miazga thought differently, however.
Two years ago upon initially arriving on loan to Eredivisie outfit Vitesse Arnhem for the first of his two seasons there, Miazga got down on himself for not being in Chelsea’s immediate plans. He was barely 21-years old at the time and not more than seven months removed from leaving the United States, but still he found himself having some blues over The Blues.
“The main thing was I came from Chelsea. I was half a season in Chelsea,” Miazga told SBI. “You see the top of the top, the cream of the crop, and you don’t get used to it but you know you’re there and then you go on loan to a smaller league, a little smaller club. Sometimes when you think about it mentally it can mess you up in a sense because you were a Chelsea player, you were in the first-team squad, you played two games, and then the reality was to have to go on loan and get experience.
“I ended up going to the Eredivisie and I came a little late in the transfer window. The season had already started so guys had established themselves with the new manager and I came late and I had to go try and make a statement and get myself going. Sometimes in football some things are out of your control, and I learned to weather the storm and continue to train hard and work hard and when I got my chance I made sure I took full advantage.”
The U.S. Men’s National Team defender, who is now 23, is not underselling that. Whereas other young players might have allowed this type of loan to send them into a downward spiral, he made the most of his opportunity in Holland. He transformed from a rotational player in his first Eredivisie season to an every-game starter during the 2017-18 campaign.
Miazga made a total of 59 starts and 72 appearances across all competitions, including six in the UEFA Europa League, and even helped Vitesse capture its first KNVB Beker trophy a year ago.
Along the way the promising youngster also learned a lot more about what it’s like to be a truly dedicated player.
“Month by month I was just focusing on being the ultimate professional,” said Miazga. “In terms of taking care of my body, taking care of myself, on the pitch doing little things, being the first one in the locker room and being the last one out of the training ground. It’s always realizing my weaknesses and working on them to become strengths.
“I was able to do that and really focus day by day on just becoming better and that really helped me, shaped me to where I’m at now.”
One aspect of Miazga’s game that notably grew during his time in the Eredivisie was his heading ability. The 6-foot-4 Miazga has had good size even since his fledgling days as a member of the New York Red Bulls, but he did not put it to good use in terms of getting on the end of attacking set pieces. In his first three-and-a-half years as a pro, he scored just two goals, one with the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the other with the Red Bulls in MLS play in 2015.
At Vitesse, however, he was determined to improve his aerial ability during the 2017-18 season. He had netted once in his inaugural season with the club in cup play, but took to heart the feedback he got from the team’s strength and conditioning coach about the production not being good enough.
“He was like, ‘If you get your run and timing in, you’re going to be unstoppable on set pieces. It’s just about those little details,’” said Miazga, who went on to score four times last season. “I was like, ‘You’re right. I need to get this down,’ and we just started working on it in training and after training, and then it just started clicking in games. Now I feel really confident in opposing set pieces.”
“It was about the timing of my running and losing my markers because obviously when you’re a big guy coming from the back you get marked even tighter because they view you as a threat,” Miazga later added. “It was more about losing my marker and getting that timing of my run and my jump and once I connect I’m a good headerer of the ball so I can get a good header in.”
It was not just on the field where Miazga put in time to try to evolve his game during his Dutch adventure. Having become fully captivated in working on a craft that he calls his “passion” and “obsession”, Miazga spent the majority of his downtime in his apartment trying to grow and learn as much as possible by reading up on the latest news on Twitter and watching lots of games.
Some players like to take a break from soccer once they are home to avoid getting saturated by their profession, but Miazga is not built that way.
“For me, I like football, so I’m going to watch football matches,” said Miazga. “For me, it’s not about rooting for anyone. It’s just more about watching good football and learning as well.”
He would also analyze his performances through an app Chelsea created for on-loan players.
“After every match you get a report or breakdown where you see your touches in the game,” said Miazga.
He also bought a ball at one point to work on his weaker left foot given that he was playing left centerback for Vitesse and needed to hit certain passes out of the defensive third.
“I had a pretty big apartment so before dinner one thing I actually did was just dribble around the apartment,” said Miazga. “Just do little juggling with my left foot, literally just my left foot, and just get my touch going.”
All of these improvements have Miazga poised to become more established on the international level. The spotlight in the U.S. is currently on the next generation after the cataclysmic failure that was not qualifying for this past summer’s World Cup, and Miazga is in camp with his compatriots right now near his hometown of Clifton, New Jersey, preparing for Friday’s tough test against star-studded Brazil at MetLife Stadium.
For his part, Miazga is looking to make a statement, not just with the USMNT but also when he returns to FC Nantes. The promising youngster is hungry to get back to the elite football world after getting a taste earlier in his career, and he is as determined as ever.
“I want to reach the top of the European game,” said Miazga. “I want to win big European trophies. I want to be a part of big games and big clubs, and I want to make sure I play at the highest level in Europe.
“We’ll see what happens but I’ve got to keep working and take it season by season and perfecting my craft and whatever happens happens. I can only control what I can control. Right now I’m at FC Nantes, and I want to do well here and win here.”