Has a call-up to the England Under-21 squad ever caused such a stir? When news broke on Sunday that Jack Harrison had been selected for Aidy Boothroyd’s squad, some of the game’s greats were quick to praise the New York City FC winger for his belated international recognition. “So happy for you,” Frank Lampard wrote on Instagram. “Top man, you deserve it and more.” David Villa went one step further. “Congrats golden boy,” the Spain World Cup winner eulogized on Twitter. “You deserve it, Jack! We are proud of you!”
That Lampard and Villa have played alongside Harrison in Major League Soccer League is, of course, hugely relevant to their comments but players of their pedigree don’t heap such praise on just anyone. Game recognize game, as they say. “I’ve spent a lot of years in this game, and he has something important that only a few players have,” Villa said of Harrison last summer. “When he has the ball at his feet, you get the sensation something is going to happen.”
Just weeks after Villa was recalled to the Spanish national team for the first time in three years, Harrison’s England Under-21 call-up is a further boost to New York City FC and to MLS as a whole. More significantly, it also represents a huge fillip for the US soccer system. After leaving the Manchester United academy – where he was a contemporary of Marcus Rashford – aged just 14, Harrison spent his formative years at the prestigious Berkshire School in Massachusetts and Wake Forest University. He may have been born and raised in England but Harrison was made in America.
Indeed, the first time Harrison even made a blip on England’s soccer radar was when he was chosen No 1 in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft by the Chicago Fire before New York City made a blockbuster move to sign the midfielder. “I have a very good friend who works for the FA and I spoke to him about Jack not so long ago. He wasn’t aware [of him] but he is now,” Harrison’s former PE teacher in Bolton, Dan McElroy, told the Daily Telegraph. “And because of the Manchester City and Patrick Vieira [the NYC FC head coach] link, he won’t be a secret now.”
Despite dazzling week after week in his debut season with NYC FC last year, earning rave reviews in the US media, Harrison was largely ignored in his home country. It was unclear if the Football Association and English press were overlooking his achievements because he was playing in a distant, supposedly inferior league. Maybe word had just not spread over the Pond. And when Harrison, now 20, frequently revealed in interviews that he was open to playing for the United States national team one day – once he qualified through residency rules – it seemed apparent that he was preparing himself for the possibility that England recognition would never come.
“I try not to think about it too much,” he told the Guardian last year. “Obviously, it would be great to represent my country, England, but if the interest is not there, I’d be happy to represent America, and I’d be open to that. I’ve said that before: I like to focus on the moment and do what I can while I’m here.”
No wonder. After David Beckham twice went on loan from LA Galaxy to Milan to extend his England career and Jermain Defoe was overlooked for the 2014 World Cup while at Toronto FC, you could not blame Harrison for thinking that the often myopic FA would not consider him for selection. Indeed, just a month ago after New York City’s 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls (on the day of Villa’s Spain call-up), Harrison told me that he still had had no contact from the FA, making news of his call-up at the weekend such a welcome surprise. As was the widespread press coverage it received back home.
That it came after two players – Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Sheyi Ojo – pulled out of Boothroyd’s squad for the Euro 2019 qualifiers against Scotland and Andorra through injury does not lessen the achievement in any way.One has to wonder if the fact that Harrison plays for New York City FC – who are partly-owned by City Football Group – and has Vieira as a coach, Lampard as a former mentor, and Villa and Andrea Pirlo as team-mates had some role in his call-up. Would he, for example, have got the same chance if he produced similar performances for lesser-known MLS teams like Columbus Crew and Minnesota United?
Regardless, in a week when the US national team desperately need to revive their World Cup qualifying campaign, that a player developed in the US high school and college system has been given such a high-profile international call-up is just the good news story the game needs in America right now.