Eric Lichaj has been here before. Not metaphorically, in a he-has-been-on-the-cusp-of-securing-a-more-permanent-spot-on-the-United-States-men’s-national-team-before sort of way. It’s meant quite literally. He already has been in the very spot where he’s standing, doing an interview as a member of Bruce Arena’s 2017 Gold Cup squad.
Six years ago, Lichaj stayed with the American team at the same Nashville hotel before the 2011 Gold Cup. He was younger then, just 22, and a different type of player. “I did a lot more running without thinking,” he says over the phone.
At the time, Lichaj was just beginning in what looked to be a long stint with the red, white and blue. The defender, who played a role helping the U.S. qualify for the 2005 U-17 World Cup and made the 2007 U-20 World Cup roster before dropping out because of injury, was in the middle of a successful loan stint with Leeds United, playing some excellent soccer.
“He’s a reliable full-back who does little wrong,” said David Jackson, a BBC radio presenter based in Nottingham. Lichaj is flexible and capable of playing both full-back roles, positions where the U.S. always lacks bodies.
Bob Bradley called the then-22-year-old into an October 2010 camp and liked what he saw. When the Gold Cup rolled around, with the winner going to the 2013 Confederations Cup, the coach brought the emerging talent along. He sat the first two games and then played every minute of the next four, including the 4-2 destruction at the hands of Mexico in the final, a result that cost Bradley his job.
Jurgen Klinsmann replaced Bradley and the new coach did not value Lichaj’s abilities. The defender made two token appearances in 2013 — mop-up duty in friendlies against Scotland and Austria — and then didn’t get on the field again until a friendly against Puerto Rico before the Copa América Centenario. He didn’t make the tournament roster and that was that. Lichaj’s club career took off: He moved to Nottingham Forest in 2013 and has made 150 appearances, captaining the side for most of the 2016-2017 season. Yet his national team opportunities were more or less nonexistent.
But now, of course, Klinsmann is gone and Arena’s in charge. What hasn’t changed is that the U.S. team still lacks reliable full-backs. DeAndre Yedlin is solidly the starter at right back but nobody has yet claimed the backup spot. So here Lichaj is, back with the U.S. team in Nashville, arguably the player with the most at stake over the next three weeks.
“It’s good to be back in a tournament,” he says in an accent one might get if they grew up in Chicago and spent almost 10 years in Nottingham. “I’m looking forward to doing my best and playing my heart out.”
Lichaj has reason to feel confident. Kenny Arena, a U.S. assistant, came to watch him play at Nottingham this spring and talked to him after the match. Lichaj was set to be called into the national team for the qualifiers against Honduras and Panama, but a groin injury suffered in a match against Barton scuttled those plans. He got healthy, stayed in touch and stayed in the picture.
While Lichaj is, by his own admission, not quite as energetic as he was in his younger days, he’s much smarter on the field. “I have more experience,” he says. “That seems to be the term everybody uses. I know what wingers tend to do. And I’m more confident in my game.
“Everything comes a little bit easier and everything comes a little bit slower when I’m playing.”
Lichaj is also familiar with many of his fellow Gold Cup teammates. Some, he has known for more than a decade. Lichaj spent 2003 through 2005 at the U.S. U-17 Residency Program, joined by Dax McCarty and Omar Gonzalez. (Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore also overlapped for some of that time along with, yes, Freddy Adu.) He played with Brad Guzan at Aston Villa and is happy to catch up with his former teammates in the national team setting. “We’ve been around the block,” Lichaj says with a laugh.
In 2017, Lichaj isn’t one of the young guys anymore. While he’s inexperienced internationally, perhaps, with only 11 caps to his name, he has had a professional career in England that has lasted a decade and he has helped bring Forest through tough times. The fans love him and he easily won the club’s Player of the Year award for his play during the 2016-2017 season.
Johnson, the journalist who covers Nottingham Forest, has seen him develop in recent years. “He’s become more of a ‘captain’ in recent months and years,” he says. The presenter remembers a match against Wigan where Lichaj was playing left back and Matty Cash was on the opposite side of the field. The young defender kept getting beat by the Wigan winger, but Lichaj recognized the situation and without prompting from his manager, switched sides of the field and shut down the opposition.
Lichaj knows his place on the U.S. squad. He doesn’t expect to come in and take over. He’ll be himself, and hope that’s enough. “I’ll just be normal,” he says. “In training I’m vocal. There are a lot of new faces. I haven’t played with a lot of guys. But I’ll be the same as I am in training here as I am in Nottingham. I’ll be vocal and I’ll try to relay the message to everybody. I don’t know if they’ll be listening, but I’ll make sure I’m heard on the pitch.”
“At the beginning of games, I’m usually loud and then as the game progresses I get a little bit less, unless there are some big moments in the game where every needs to be focused, then you’ll probably hear me as well.”
If you listen close, you can hear Eric Lichaj coming.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.