Matt Miazga has been one of the hottest young players in Major League Soccer this season, representing the New York Red Bulls at a high level. He is well regarded by those within the league - as indicated by a high ranking on MLS's 24-under-24 list - and he might yet make a dent in next year's All-Star voting, if he sticks around.
His sticking around in MLS is the big question hanging over Miazga. He's entering the last year of his contract with RBNY. As far as we know, he has, to date, resisted the club's efforts to extend that contract. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl occasionally hangs league gossip out there for the sake of it ("$300 million"), but no one doubts his ability to find well-placed sources and accurately transcribe their comments: at the end of September, Wahl passed on the news Miazga has recently switched agents, possibly as a prelude to landing a deal with a European club.
The young defender's profile has been raised dramatically this season. He has been a consistent starter for RBNY, deploying a lunging tackle that has crippled (not physically, but we think emotionally) the striking prowess of David Villa, Kei Kamara, and Sebastian Giovinco, among the many that brought a battering ram to the Red Bulls' defense, only to see it splinter. And he has performed creditably for the USA U-20s and U-23s against some of the best age-groups teams in CONCACAF and the world.
Over the past 10 months or so, Miazga has faced the challenges presented to him with aplomb, furthering his reputation almost every time he takes the field. His work rate, tackles, and game intelligence has ensured a need for the Polish-American defender, and has largely trumped the expected mistakes caused by a young player (of which he has made his share, but he learns fast and rarely seems to get caught out the same way twice).
Miazga turned pro at 17, signing Homegrown Player contract with RBNY in May 2013. He made his debut for the club in September of the same year, a couple of months after his 18th birthday. But he was still a relative unknown at the start of this season. That changed when Ronald Zubar was hobbled in the opening game of the Red Bulls' 2015 league campaign. Miazga has grown visibly in confidence and effectiveness on the pitch since that shaky substitute appearance in March. He is now a key member of the back line for a team chasing a MLS regular season title.
At 20, Matt Miazga is exactly what MLS hopes to obtain from a developing soccer nation (no slight on Canada - Doneil Henry, Clye Larin, and Tesho Akindele are all great). Such a talent naturally attracts attention, with the national team paying ever closer attention to the young defender. However, Miazga's case is not so cut and dried. He clearly has the skill, and is getting regular call-ups to the US Youth National sides. However, no senior national team call up has been made and accepted.
Part of the reason for the lack of a senior team call-up is the sheer speed of Miazga's ascent. He wasn't even on his own club's radar as a starting-caliber center back at the beginning of this year. He was considered a promising back-up, likely to spend most of the season polishing his talent with the US U-20s, maybe the U-23s if he was very lucky.
And that is another part of the reason for his absence from Jurgen Klinsmann's USMNT rosters: Miazga has been a key member of the USA U-20s World Cup qualifying squad (in January), the team that went to the U-20 World Cup (in June), and now the U-23 team hoping to bounce back from a stinging defeat to claim berth in the 2016 Olympics. Throwing senior national team duty at him would either have prevented him from enjoying those experiences, or robbed his club of even more of his time. His development is being carefully managed, it would appear, and a frivolous call up to the senior USA Men's National Team just hasn't been part of the program so far this year.
But the lack of senior cap strikes some observers as a failure to usher through emerging talent to USMNT. And some fans and media members worry about Miazga's dual-nationality. He has the option of representing either the Polish national team or USMNT. Indeed, he has represented Poland's U-18 squad (once), but that did not tie him to his parent's native side. Since then, he has not featured for Poland, as he stated he has committed to a (successful) U-20 World Cup qualifying campaign with the US U-20s, and now he has graduated to the U-23's Olympic qualifying campaign.
Miazga's choices have caused a bit of anxiety to US and Polish soccer-watchers. Papers from both sides of the pond have nervously written about the matter, and wondered what channels have or haven't been opened to
help him connect him to either of the national teams he could represent. Moreover, the player himself has consistently refused to rule out playing for either the USA or Poland.
One might reasonably judge him by his actions - he's consistently played for US national youth teams since 2013 - but some want to hear him express a preference, and he won't. Something seems to be ultimately holding him back from choosing. It could be modesty: one does not simply play for a national team because one feels like it. It could be respect for the country of his birth and the land that nurtured his parents - why rank one over the other for the media's benefit? And, of course, it could simply be prudence or the natural hesitation that comes with a rather important decision in a young career. Just think about trying to make a college kid commit to anything longer than a week - it really isn't all that easy!
Ultimately, his choice is most likely to be made for him: one country or the other will call him up to its senior team. In that regard, the USA seems to have the edge: Andi Herzog, coach of the US U-23s had said that Miazga might get the chance to join the senior squad in a few months. Quite a shocking announcement considering Miazga was still largely only being selected for the U-20s side at the time, and it still wasn't entirely clear whether he was in the U-23 squad to start (turns out he was) or to gather experience. The youngster is now being touted more than ever to wear the stars and stripes of the country of his birth.
However, what will become of him if he turns into that American poster-child for soccer success? Will he end up being considered a better American player than Landon Donovan? Or will he have the rise-and-fall of Jozy Altidore, only to disappoint game after game, after setting expectations that he could join the list of all-time US soccer greats. All too often this country has seen the rise of out-of-this-world talents, to just see their actual performance shrink from the promise of their potential. Perhaps Poland might offer a better track record with regard to the development and nurturing of players on the international stage.
Miazga's ties to Poland will remain a source of concern to USMNT fans until or unless his future as a USA player is secured. PZPN (The Polish FA), however, seems to be do the same thing every time a potential Polish national team player with dual-citizenship rises up: too little, too late.
Typically, PZPN waits until negotiations have started with the other country in question, and then does very little convincing to have the player represent Poland. We have seen this in particular with Lukasz Podolski and Miroslav Klose, both of whom displayed interest in playing for Poland. Instead, Germany came in with a nice offer and scooped both players up. In the end it came to bite Poland as Klose is the top goal scorer in World Cup history. Perhaps most painfully, in the 2006 World Cup, the two could-have-been-Poles were in the starting line-up for the game in which Germany ended Poland's chances of leaving the group.
From a Polish perspective, Matt Miazga looks like he could very well be another one of those players that the national team will miss out on. As has been mentioned before, the talk of Adam Nawalka (Polish National Team coach) looking at the youngster seems to be largely rumor. This seems a shame, especially when one considers the latest highlight reel moment from a Polish national team defender: unlike Michal Pazdan, perhaps Miazga would have managed not to concede a penalty by kicking an opponent in the face.
Miazga may ultimately not even get that Polish call up, much to the dismay of many of Poland's fans. However, let us consider the scenario where he does get the call along with a US one.
First consideration: Matt will have no chance to experiment with Poland. He has a one-time switch with FIFA to use for a national team choice, and once it is made it can never be reversed. If he opts for Poland, he can't switch back to the USA (for whom he has already played competitive youth international games).
Second, will he want to represent a country he does not live in, and where may be out of place as an American? Miazga has had to cut down on his visits to Poland because of his professional commitments, and - as far as is understood - he has never lived there. Sure, his parents are from Poland, he has a good grasp of the language, he follows the country's traditions at home, but is that a strong enough set of ties for him to pull on a Polish shirt?
If the first two considerations seem to favor the US, the third might be a mark in favor of Poland: where will Miazga get the senior international playing time he not only needs, but deserves? Currently, the US national team seems to be doing a lot of jostling around with the back-line, where different players step in far too often for any real chemistry to develop. Will Matt Miazga even be caught up by this rotation, or will he simply be dropped because the talent pool Klinsmann is juggling with is just too large (regardless of his distinguishing soccer abilities)?
Will Poland utilize him from the outset? Perhaps, Nawalka has allowed some of his younger players like Arkadiusz Milik and Bartosz Kapustka log some playing time in the Euros to see what lies ahead for the future. Poland also seems to lack consistent center backs, able to intervene at crucial moments - and those are moments where Miazga steps up repeatedly. His recovery speed and ability to make the last-ditch tackle count have been invaluable to all the teams he has played for this season.
Arguably, therefore, Poland might have edge in terms of willingness to methodically integrate youth into the first team and the sort of positional need that might recommend a young center back to the player pool.
Lastly, let us say Miazga is guaranteed playing time. Where will he be able to shine, in terms of tournament appearances? The US has been consistently qualifying for big tournaments at the senior level. Even with some of the hiccups the program has faced in recent years, it still seems Miazga would get a bigger spotlight from the United States. Poland on the other hand has not featured in the World Cup since Germany 2006.
It has made it successfully to the Euros in 2008, 2012 (hosts), and (most recently) the 2016 tournament. It is hard to imagine, but some have commented that this Poland team is resurgent and will surpass the levels of the 1970s' teams that exerted a dominance over world soccer, just falling short of lifting a major trophy.
Many European teams look favorably at Poland's talent pool as players like Robert Lewandowski, Lukasz Fabianski, Lukasz Piszczek, Milik, and Grzegorz Krychowiak continue to stand up, and the rumor mill spins for them. Whereas the US national team has recently felt a trend of players returning to the United States after trying their trade in Europe.
This particular point boils down to where Miazga wants to be the center of focus for the rest of his playing career. If he commits to the US, there is a good chance he'll stick with the US league for a good portion of his career. If he jumps in with Poland, there is a good chance that he joins up with a club in Europe - perhaps even Poland - after he matures a little more under the Red Bulls' gaze.
Personally, I believe he will stay with the United States. He learned soccer in this country, and has played with the youth teams here, so he knows the system. Going to play for Poland takes him out of his comfort zone. The future is a little hazier for him in Polish colors; the US seems to have laid out a clear development path for him (U-18s, U-20s, U-23s) and he's followed it diligently and been rewarded with experiences such as the U-20 World Cup. Moreover, I simply believe that the US will start talks sooner, and close in on him before Poland even begins the paper work necessary for a one-time switch.