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Perhaps the most important player in U.S. soccer history will be in uniform during next weekend’s MLS All-Star Game festivities at RFK Stadium. And he ain’t Freddy Adu.
It’s John Harkes.
Harkes will suit up with former mates from the 1994 U.S. World Cup team—including Alexi Lalas and Thomas Dooley—a squad that captured America’s fancy like no other. They’ll face a bunch of similarly retired international players—Carlos Valderrama of Colombia and Mexico’s Jorge Campos among them—in an exhibition match. That game will serve as a preliminary to the East vs. West main event. The old guys get second billing, but were it not for the exploits of Harkes and his boys, there probably wouldn’t even be an MLS.
“I’m trying to get in shape for it,” Harkes says. “I’ve been calling up Alexi and the guys to make sure they’re fit. We’ll see.”
Harkes’ professional playing career officially ended last year, after a failed attempt at a comeback with D.C. United, a squad he once captained. He lives in Northern Virginia but travels to Los Angeles most weekends for a soccer-commentating job with Fox Sports, and during those trips he tries to kick it around with Hollywood United, a very informal football confederation of mostly British expats.
But most of his soccer these days comes as a tutor. He coaches his son and other 9-year-olds in a Fairfax County youth league. And in his new role as United’s director of youth development, Harkes will oversee the launching of the D.C. United Elite Academy, a summer camp for gifted and talented footballers ages 13 to 18 that convenes for the first time next month. For $275 a head, kids can learn the international game from a guy who’s played it at every level.
“When the club decided to go ahead with [the academy], John Harkes was the best man to take the reins,” says D.C. United spokesperson Doug Hicks. “There’s nobody in the United family with a better name in soccer circles, locally or nationally or internationally.”
Whatever the team’s motivation for hiring him, Harkes says he took the coaching gigs mainly out of a duty to pass on his skills and love for the game, just as elders did for him when he was a kid.
It’s not all about altruism or tradition, however.
Harkes, 37, admits he wasn’t ready to retire when United announced that he wouldn’t be on the roster in February 2003. Coaching has lessened the burden caused by the sudden transition to a civilian existence after a life spent on the pitch. “This makes my life easier,” he says. “When you’re a player and feel you can still play, it can be hard.”
And quite a player he was. Harkes’ résumé is full of firsts for U.S. soccer. The New Jersey native and University of Virginia star became the first American to play in the English Premier League after he signed with Sheffield Wednesday in 1990; his club beat Manchester United to win the League Cup in his rookie season abroad. He is also credited as the first Yank to score in Wembley Stadium and the first to play in the United European Football Association Cup. Stints with Derby County and West Ham kept Harkes overseas for most of the year until 1996.
He’s rightfully immodest about his trailblazing.
“Kids today have access to all sorts of international play that we never were exposed to,” he says. “Now these kids have so much exposure to high-level football from all over the world. They’re seeing a lot—they’re imitating these players and what they see. We had none of that. My youth club used to get videotapes of [Glasgow] Rangers games sent over to New Jersey from Scotland, so we’d see a game a week after it happened. And there was Soccer Made in Germany on PBS. That was it. And it makes a difference. I was the first in England. Now we have 14 or 15 guys playing in Europe, all over. We’re the ones who knocked down doors in Europe, and now the coaches [in Europe] know they can look at young American players.”
Even as he pioneered in England, Harkes would come back to his homeland to join the national team as it prepared to host the 1994 World Cup. Harkes’ popularity wasn’t due only to his skills at midfield. He was the sport’s most marketably hunky star; People magazine had put him in that year’s class of the Most Beautiful People, for the first time elevating his renown here to its level in England.
And Harkes proved himself a fab spokesmodel for the game he so loved: His family’s Scottish roots enabled him to break into a cool brogue whenever he talked football, and his time playing abroad left him with the skill—rare among soccer aficionados in this country—to drop “brilliant” into casual conversation without coming off as an ass.
Harkes played every minute of the U.S. team’s games in the group stage in the 1994 World Cup, and he also had a foot in the team’s most pivotal moment of that tournament. In the match against heavily favored Colombia, Harkes launched the shot that Colombian defender Andreas Escobar accidentally redirected into his own net. The United States won the game 2-1 to earn a berth in the round of 16, while the Colombians went home shamed. (Americans learned how momentous the sport was to the rest of the world 10 days later, when Escobar died after being shot about a dozen times in a parking lot in Medellín, reportedly as payback for his own goal.)
Because of yellow cards accrued during the group stage, Harkes had to sit out the match with Brazil in the elimination round. Brazil won, 1-0, before more than 90,000 mostly American fans. But the enthusiasm whipped up during the U.S. team’s World Cup run caused such big-money people as George Soros and Philip Anschutz to get behind the launching of a domestic pro-soccer league, and in 1996, the MLS kicked off.
Harkes was the first player allocated to the D.C. franchise and the team’s first captain. He led United to championships in the first two years of the league’s existence. The 1996 championship game, a 3-2 come-from-behind win for United over Los Angeles, is labeled as the greatest match in MLS history.
As the U.S. team prepared for the 1998 World Cup, coach Steve Sampson named Harkes the national squad’s “captain for life,” but the title didn’t hold. Just two months before the action kicked off in France, Sampson shocked the soccer universe by kicking Harkes off the team and publicly questioning his former pet’s leadership. Harkes may have felt some vindication when the U.S. team finished dead last in the 32-team tournament without him, earning Sampson his own pink slip. But the row with the national coach no doubt diminished Harkes’ legacy.
Harkes won’t be dwelling on the sorriest chapter of his long career during All-Star Weekend, when he again gets to “kick it around” at RFK, on the same grass where he and United enjoyed such success.
“Oh, I don’t get too many chances to play like this anymore,” Harkes says. “The ball is still a piece of candy to me. It’s going to be brilliant.”