Eric Lichaj has been a hot topic in United States soccer circles of late. Injuries kept him from being selected to Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team for months, but he is fit and starting for Aston Villa, which should make him a surefire selection for the national team, right?
Even as Lichaj continues to play for Villa, he is no sure bet to get called in to the U.S. team. The team isn't devoid of fullbacks, with Fabian Johnson and Steve Cherundolo each in fine form an Michael Parkhurst putting in an admirable performance against Jamaica, so Lichaj isn't pushing for selection at a position of need, but starting in the Premier League is usually all it takes to get called up to the U.S.
It is not as if Lichaj is unproven at the international level either. He played in the Gold Cup and played well, starting at left back for most of it and putting in some time on the right too.
So why isn't Lichaj getting call ups? In an interview with Doug McIntyre, Klinsmann addressed that question.
"Eric has always been on our list and the more he plays, the closer he gets. Right now it's not the right time to bring in a bunch of new players. Every coach wants to see young players coming through the system, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing Eric for myself, with the group. 2013 will be a big year with qualification and also the Gold Cup. We'll have to build two rosters. Hopefully there's an opportunity for Eric coming up in the near future if he keeps starting at Aston Villa."
Based on this, it is clear that Klinsmann has his eye on Lichaj and that he will give the 23-year-old another look soon, but he is not exactly rushing to get him in now. Why not?
Well, Lichaj hasn't exactly been great. Exactly where this myth that Lichaj is playing spectacularly is beyond me, but it started and helped build up the legend of Lichaj. Chalk it up to the nature of fandom and Americans' desire to see new players and those in a big league shine internationally, but Lichaj has been made out to be performing much better than he has.
That isn't to say that Lichaj has played poorly, because he hasn't, but he hasn't been great. He's had his good moments, but has had just as many bad ones.
Lichaj's up-and-down performance isn't really surprising. It is really easy to forget that he has just 54 professional club appearances so he doesn't even have a full season under his belt and very often, it shows.
7500 to Holte's Aaron Campeau is an unabashed Lichaj fanboy and has watched him as much as anyone else. His take on Lichaj highlights the fullback's inconsistency.
As has been somewhat of a trend in his career as a first-team player with Aston Villa, life under Paul Lambert has been a mixed bag for Eric Lichaj. After seemingly establishing himself as first-choice right back under Alex McLeish for the last few months of last season (and for the most part performing quite well) his place was immediately threatened when Lambert made signing Matthew Lowton one of his first orders of business. Lichaj played a fair bit of left back under both McLeish and Gerard Houllier and almost all of his time with the USMNT has been there as well, but once the season began he found himself left out of the starting lineup in favor of Nathan Baker, a natural center back.
Lichaj got his chance due to the suspension of Ciaran Clark and an injury to Baker, and it looked like he'd taken it; Lichaj did very well in a 1-1 draw against Newcastle and continued that form in Villa's 2-0 win over Swansea. Unfortunately, he had a disaster of a game against Southampton and was withdrawn in the 68th minute in favor of new signing Joe Bennett. Bennett was very good against Manchester City in Villa's surprise League Cup win at the Etihad, and all indications are that he'll get the start against West Brom on Sunday.
Lichaj is almost certainly a better defender than both Lowton and Bennett, but he has some major shortcomings going forward (particularly on the left.) In a lot of teams he'd be the favored option at right back, but with Villa's narrow midfield the ability of the fullbacks to provide width and contribute to the attack is incredibly important. It's not as though Lichaj is a bad attacking fullback, but he's just not quite in Lowton or Bennett's range.
Still, even if Lichaj has been temporarily displaced as a first-choice option, Paul Lambert has not been shy about mixing things up when given the opportunity. He's going to get plenty of cracks at the first team, and if he can take advantage of those opportunities then he'll do well. If he can't take advantage of those opportunities, well, he probably doesn't have much of a future as a national team player no matter the competition for a place or the manager.
Ultimately, Lichaj is in a pretty good situation. Aston Villa is a very competitive place right now, and much of Paul Lambert's success as a manager has been due to his ability to motivate young players and help them in getting to the next level. He has all of the tools and I expect him to develop into a very good player that's capable of holding down a spot at either fullback position for years to come. But ultimately, it's up to Jurgen Klinsmann to decide when he's going to get his next chance. And with Klinsmann involved, your guess is as good as mine as to when that might be.
So deep breaths. Lichaj's play, while exciting and excellent at times, isn't exactly demanding a call up.
Could Lichaj be a very good fullback for the U.S.? Certainly, but he is not there yet. Maybe by professional match number 60 even 70 he'll start to sort out the kinks in his game, but it is going to take some time.
Meanwhile, the Americans are doing just fine at fullback. Merely playing for a Premier League team does not make one a surefire national team pick. He's good enough that Klinsmann could call him in now and it would be just fine, but it is in no way an injustice that Klinsmann has snubbed him thus far. Patience.