By Kevin Koczwara
Eric Lichaj found himself in a tough situation at Aston Villa this year. The 22-year-old American defender began making his way into the first team and establishing himself as a young defender to watch in the English Premier League early in the season.
Lichaj started fighting for a spot on the first team because of inconsistent play from Luke Young, Ciaran Clark, and Stephen Warnock. Then Gerard Houllier took the vacant position as the club’s long-term manager and replacement for Martin O’Neil. Houllier brought in Kyle Walker from Tottenham on loan to play right back for Villa, making Lichaj a surplus to requirements. The American has been given a way to get back on track, a chance to catapult his carrier back on the fast track, with a loan move to Leeds United for the second half of this season.
The move to Leeds for Lichaj could be a real boost for his young career, even if he isn’t getting playing time in the Premier League. The American is getting a chance to play for a club fighting back from some hard times in the Championship.
Eight points and five places separate Leeds United from Queens Park Rangers in the Championship standings (England’s second-tier), but Leeds only need to make up the three points on Cardiff City to get an automatic promotion back to the English Premier League. Currently, Leeds is sixth in the Championship — the last promotion playoff spot — and have a chance to keep the pressure on QPR and Forest.
If Leeds get the automatic bid back up to the Premier League or whether they have to fight in the playoffs for the final coveted berths to England’s top-flight, it will be one of the biggest and quickest comebacks in any sport franchise’s history. Just six years ago Leeds began its decent from European contenders and perennial powerhouses in England’s top-flight to League One (England’s third-division). It was an amazing fall from grace, and any and everything that could go wrong went wrong — going into administration being the major factor.
For Lichaj this opportunity to help Leeds fight for promotion will give him plenty of experience playing at a top-level and a big club (Leeds still has one of the preeminent stadiums and fans in England) fighting for something important. One cannot discount the importance of this valuable experience in an athlete trying to jump-start a career. Linchaj will have to battle week in and week out with Leeds. He will have to establish himself in the starting XI and endear himself to the Leeds faithful with consistent performances.
If the American can establish himself at Leeds he could see his stock rise. Lichaj could become a member of Villa’s latest crop of young talent or even help Leeds get promoted back to the Premier League and find himself moving there permanently if all goes well. If Lichaj can’t establish himself at Leeds or find enough playing time to prove he really is a talented and motivated 22-year-old then his place on Bob Bradley’s future U.S. Men’s National Team could be all but a distant memory. This is a trying time for Lichaj, the window for success in professional soccer, especially in Europe, is small and players need to take advantage of all the chances they get. If they don’t, well, clubs will always find a replacement.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.