When the Red Bulls acquired central defender Ronald Zubar in the offseason there was a chance it could have delayed the development of promising teenager Matt Miazga, an academy player who seemed ready to make the next step.
How wrong we were.
Zubar started alongside Damien Perrinelle in the season opener against Sporting Kansas City but suffered a hamstring injury late in the game and Miazga played the final 13 minutes. The injury did not appear to be serious, but complications developed. Combined with other injuries and setbacks, Zubar has been limited to just three games this season.
Miazga has made the most of Zubar’s absence, and when Zubar is finally healthy to play, which could be as soon as the Aug. 26 match against the Chicago Fire, it seems unthinkable coach Jesse Marsch would sit Miazga, who has been one of the team’s best players this season.
“Right when I started playing I just wanted to play my best every game,” Miazga said. “It was all about consistency, having the right mentality every transition, every game, so I can perform my best. I thought I did decent enough. It’s been going well, but it’s about consistency at the professional level. If you’re not consistent enough the next guy is ready to take your spot. You have to perform and have the right mentality at all times.”
Miazga and Perrinelle have formed an excellent combination in central defense this season, but Perrinelle will miss the next two games following a league suspension, leaving Miazga likely to pair with Roy Miller. But no matter who he teams with, Miazga has become a fixture in the starting lineup.
“Each game is a new challenge and a new test, a different test,” Miazga said. “The first game against D.C., when I heard I was going to start against them I knew it was going to be a big test. It was at home in front of our supporters, but we got the victory and the shutout in a 2-0 win. Ever since then I just tried to continue on and play each game to the best of my ability and give it my all.
“When you play well your confidence boosts up and you get going. It’s all about confidence and mentality. If I go on the field and say ‘I’m going to do this’ and ‘I’m going to do that’ and I can do it and I’m the best player on the field – you have to have that mentality because if you don’t then you’re not. But I come out with that mentality and give it my all and shut down the attackers, just do my job.”
Miazga has held his own against some of the league’s best goal scorers this season, and it started early.
“Every striker I play against is different,” he said. “There’s (the Crew’s) Kei Kamara, who’s big, physical, very good in the air. That was a big challenge. Then there was (NYCFC’s) David Villa, who’s crafty, swift and drifts off you and looks for little, tight pockets. He’s difficult to contain. Forwards like (D.C. United’s Jairo) Arieta or (D.C. United’s Chris) Pontius or even (Montreal Impact’s) Dominic Oduro, who’s very fast and direct, they are tough.
“Every guy is a different test and challenge and I’ve got to be up for it. I’m playing against all these different strikers and I don’t think I’ve faced a similar one yet, everyone is different, so it’s great I’m gaining all this experience and playing time and getting more games under my belt and just gain experience and develop.”
Internationally, Miazga was a member of the United States Under-20 team that lost to eventual-champion Serbia on penalty kicks in the U-20 World Cup quarterfinals in June. His next goal?
“The next step in the Olympic team, so my goal is to make that team and to qualify,” Miazga said of the 2016 Games. “If the Olympic call-up comes along, it comes along. My focus is Red Bulls, I can’t worry about it. If they want me there, I’ll go. Qualifying is in October, when it’s crunch time at the end of the (MLS) season. We’ll see what happens there. There’s two more months to that. It’s one of my goals and I’ll continue to work hard toward that.”