If only we had asked the right question at the beginning of the interview. That question: “Eric, are you a fan of interviews?”
Because, the conclusion of our conversation with Aston Villa defender Eric Lichaj went something like this, “Anything we missed Eric? Any questions we should have asked?”
“Nothing really. I don’t really do a lot of interviews. I’m not a big fan of them.”
Lichaj’s roommate with the 88’s at the Bradentown Academy in Florida where the Aston Villa rightback spent time in his teens, Preston Zimmerman, confirmed it with us, “You might as well consider the interview a success if you were able to get anything out of him at all…haha.”
So that explains Eric’s direct, curbed, but still accommodating responses.
TSG spoke with Eric via a speakerphone in the media office at Villa the day after last week’s Sunderland game and after an early morning workout at “The Barn,” the name of the Villa training complex.
We meandered through a whole host of questions with Eric during the exchange, trying at multiple points to crowbar out just a little more detail.
Eric, for his part, seemed slightly bemused by the interview and called it himself at the end when he said, “Look, I’m just a regular guy.”
In fact that’s the just impression we got in speaking with him. A regular, fuss-less, quietly confident guy, who is solely focused on moving forward in a very black-and-white way…see goal, attain goal.
For American fans, Lichaj’s no-nonsence demanor seems like a perfect component to Bob Bradley’s squad. All the better for the American fullback in Birmingham who looks to have a leg up on the rightback role in Rio De Janiero in a little less than four years.
Now, we launch into our Eric Lichaj conversation. And a huge thanks to the media team at Aston Villa for working us in.
TSG: Bit of a tough stretch for Villa here, what’s the mood around the team?
Eric: Well, it lifted a little when we got a good result against Chelsea. But yesterday, we lost 1-nil versus Sunderland.
Our hopes are still high though and we think we’re going to start getting some points.
TSG: You recently began starting…what was it like getting out there with the first unit for the first time against West Brom?
Eric: I had already played a couple of games with the League Cup so it wasn’t anything big. I just looked at as I have to do my job because we were in a bad spot [Luke Young out injured].
TSG: Is it easier subbing in for you or easier when you’re with the starting team?
Eric: Pretty sure every player would say it’s easier starting than coming on as a sub.
Because you come on in the 2nd half you have to get used to the pace of the game pretty quickly. You have to warm-up on the sideline and that’s not really a proper-warm.
TSG: Now you knew we were going to ask you about going up against Gareth Bale. You did a more than admirable job in defense of him. How’d you prepare for Bale and that game?
Eric: I didn’t really prepare any specific way. Before the game I had some of the guys who played against him before give me advice. Obviously Carlos [Cuellar] was covering me whenever I slipped up and that was good.
It was good to shut him down and I did a decent job, but we still lost the game. So not really that sweet I guess.
TSG: Right. What was some of the advice you received about defending Bale?
Eric: The guys were just telling me about how quick he is. I always ask what for what foot they use and what moves he does where.
Also some stuff on “when he does this, he likes to go down the line.”
I think I handled it pretty well.
TSG: Agreed. However, the follow-up game against Manchester City was more challenging.
You played a different type of winger going up against Silva, Johnson and even against the striker Balotelli a few times. Was that difficult?
Eric: I really wasn’t use to playing a full game. Two games in a few days on short rest was tough. I’m not using that as an excuse though; I just had a bad game.
TSG: How do you rebound from a game like that. Do you go talk to the coach? Do you prepare any differently?
Eric: Oh no. It’s just keep working hard and putting it behind me. Everyone makes mistakes.
I made a mistake in the beginning of the game. I just have to keep working hard and keep doing what I do.
TSG: Do you prepare differently for each type of forward you encounter during the season?
Eric: I don’t prepare any differently. Usually I find out which is their dominant foot, how quick they are and whether they like to cut inside or not.
Just little things like that and I take it from there.
TSG: What were your goals heading into this year and how’s the progress in attaining them? Are they within your reach?
Eric: I think there right there. I would like to be starting all the time of course. I still think I’m a bit of ways in order to do that,.
And for the US, I want to be called into the camps from now on. That’s looking like it’s a possibility. I just have to keep working hard. I’m still young at 22 and I have a lot of years ahead of me.
TSG: What are some of the things you think you have to work on in your game?
Eric: Just little things like awareness and positioning. Sometimes I close down people too quickly. Just little things that the coaches address with me.
TSG: One of things we’ve noticed is the physical nature of your play. Is that something you have to dial up or dial down? Does it get you in trouble with fouls or cards at all?
Eric: I think just over here it’s a lot different than over in the U.S. Say, a yellow card in the US is just a foul over here.
I have to adapt my game and go into tackles a little harder here.
Like I said, it just goes a yellow card over there is just a foul here and a red card is just a yellow. It’s something I notice a lot and I have to adapt my game depending on where I’m playing.
TSG: Okay, who’s got a better throw-in you, Rory Delap, or Gooch [Oguchi Onyewu]?
Eric: Probably Delap …mine’s not very good…it’s always wet over here which makes it harder to grip the ball. When it’s dry I’ve got a pretty good one.
TSG: Are you going to beat Gooch out for that role on the U.S…or…
Eric: I don’t know I think we’re pretty even. It’s probably better if I take them though because he’s a big guy and he can get on the other end of them in the box.
TSG: Okay, just a few more club questions for you. There is some talk about other players [Kyle Walker] who may come into the side. How do you deal with transfer rumors at your position.
Eric: Well, they’re just rumors and in the papers until they’re confirmed.
Once the player is in then it’s different.
TSG: Does it matter to you…is it something where you say, “I welcome the competition” or is it more, “I thought I had established myself?”
[This interview took the place the day of the Kyle Walker announcement earlier in the day, UK time]
Eric: Uh…it’s probably a little bit of both. I still don’t feel like I’ve established myself fully though.
TSG: Okay, let me backtrack a little….how did you get discovered by Villa? You have the Polish passport but not really much is known about how you actually got to Villa?
Eric: When I was on the U-17 national team in Bradentown, my current agent now–Steven Cohen–said he wanted me to go on a bunch of trials.
Short story, I went to three or four different clubs. I went to Everton, Blackburn, Liverpool and Manchester United…and they all didn’t want me. Then I went to Aston Villa and was there for a week and a half and at the end they said they wanted to sign me.
TSG: So it’s your agent and then it’s basically two weeks to prove yourself?
Eric: Sometimes I went to places for just a weekend. They usually set up a game for you and some training.
TSG: Are other players trialing at the same time as you?
Eric: Mostly it was just me, but sometimes it will be two or three young guys at a time.
TSG: Now…and I know this is going back. At the time, if a club said they weren’t interested, did you take it in stride or do you take in personally? Does it shake your confidence?
Eric: It doesn’t really shake your confidence.
The one [club] that I was actually down on was Everton. I did really well in that one and they said they didn’t want me. That shook me a little.
It didn’t really matter though. I didn’t really know all about it since I was really young. I was 18 and didn’t know what it was all about.
TSG: You were in the reserves for two years and then went out on loan to a few lower league sides. What’s it like playing for a smaller club when you go on loan? How are you received? What’s different?
Eric: At the time, it’s good to play in front of crowd, even if it’s a small crowd. In the reserves, you don’t play in front of crowds. So that’s one thing for sure.
And also playing for points…in the reserves the games are important, but obviously in the league you’re looking to get points each time out.
When I was Leyton Oreint, they were in relegation battle and we stayed up. It was a good experience and all the fans appreciated the effort. That was cool to see.
TSG: I think it was at Lincoln you played mostly leftback. Do you consider yourself exclusively a rightback?
Eric: I would rather play rightback. People think it’s easy to switch back and forth, but when you’re defending it’s very different. I can play leftback if I need to, but rightback is my natural position.
TSG: And coming up through the US set-up you mostly played midfield, correct?
Eric: When I was younger I used to play striker and midfield. Since the ODP [Olympic Development Program] thing they put me at rightback though.
TSG: Here’s a question. You’re one of the few players who played in front of three US keepers (Friedel, Guzan, Howard) who played at the World Cups…..actually wait you haven’t played in front of Howard yet….compare and contrast their styles though.
Eric: There’s not much difference between them. They all organize the defense and everything.
TSG: Is there anything specific? It appears from watching that Howard is much more vocal than Guzan for example
Eric: No, no. I can hear both of them. I don’t really notice the difference. Both Brads are very vocal.
TSG: Did you ever consider playing for Poland at all?
Eric: Never crossed my mind. I was brought up in the US; I came up playing for the US and the U-17. I was always going to play for the US.
No brainer…didn’t even take a second to think about it.
TSG: Most recently, you got called in for the games against Poland and Colombia. With the Polish connection, so to speak, and playing about fifteen minutes from your home in Chicago, were you disappointed that you didn’t get in that game?
Eric: Yeah…but I was more disappointed because my whole family there. I was more disappointed about that. It’s alright though…I played a half in the Colombia game.
TSG: You played well. Did Bob Bradley come to you before the game and let you know if you were going to go in for that Poland game or not? Did you have any clue whether you’d play or not.
Eric: I’m pretty sure no coach is going tell you those things in advance.
TSG: You know what….that was probably one of my worst questions I’ve ever asked.
TSG: What was the experience like in South Africa. We interviewed Teal Bunbury recently and he said Bob Bradley’s message was “just to have fun.”
Eric: Not really much more. We all enjoyed it because. It was a pretty new group and not many guys new each other. I only knew a couple of boys.
It was a good experience for everyone I think.
TSG: Where do you see yourself in the current rightback pecking order for the US? Who else is your competition for that spot?
Eric: Obviously Jonathan Spector. He and Steve Cherundolo; I think that’s the three rightbacks right now.
Obviously my goal is to play at the 2014 World Cup and be the starting rightback.
TSG: Well you might consider Spector more of a goal scorer these days…
Eric: Ha, well he did play the midfield in that game. So I don’t know…
TSG: And Steve’s proven to be a little brittle…
Eric: [Admonishing] You shouldn’t say that. He’s a good player.
TSG: Who’s the toughest attacker you’ve faced off with in the EPL?
Eric: He playes here. Probably Emile Heskey. A very good player.
Eric: It’s impossible to win the ball off him in the air. He’s really strong in his movements off the ball. He makes little movements, receives the ball and then he pumps the ball out quickly. He’s a very good player.
TSG: How about an opponent instead of a teammate?
Eric: From an opponent…uh I don’t really know. I don’t remember this stuff. I just try to do my job.
I don’t know. I couldn’t say. I couldn’t say.
TSG: Here’s a standard question. God forbid you’re in a pub and you’re about to get in a fight. Who’s the one teammate you’d want backing you up?
Eric: Oh…gee…probably one of my good mates over here. Chris H…..
TSG: Chris, who?
Eric: Herd. Chris Herd.
TSG: Ah, an Aussie. Makes sense. Who’s the best dressed player in the locker room at Villa?
Eric: I am, of course.
TSG: Why’s that?
Eric: Well so if anyone reads this on the team they are going to laugh at me.
TSG: Oh, I doubt that….that they’ll read this at all. We’re very niche.
One from the fans here, what’s the next hairstyle you got coming out. You going back to the college afro.
Eric: Ha, ha…it’s weird…my brother and I always had afros. Did the buzzcut for awhile, now I’ve got the faux hawk. Going to stick with the faux hawk for awhile.
TSG: Do you hang out with any of the American players abroad?
Eric: I used to hang out with Brad Guzan, but now he’s gone to Hull.
TSG: What’s life like outside for soccer?
Eric: Usually after training, I go to a coffee shop and hang out with some of the guys. Or we’ll just do the moves. I’m just a normal guy. I’m a regular guy.
TSG: Any questions we’ve missed? Something we should have asked?
Eric: Nothing really. I don’t really do a lot of interviews. I’m not a big fan of them.
TSG: Alright, well thanks for this one. Best of luck for the rest of the season.
Eric: Oh thanks man.
Eric Lichaj, American fullback in Birmingham.
Thanks to all of you that offered questions and to “Tuesday” for bringing Lichaj to our attention many moons ago.