Tag: Sheffield Wednesday

Throwback Thursday – John Harkes

Captain for life, at least that is the title of his biography, John Harkes is an American soccer legend. When I think of a legend, I think of a player that did something first, a player that was transformative in his time and a player that broke a lot of preconceived notions along the way. Harkes was just that player.

A son of Scottish immigrants, Harkes was a first generation American. As a Kearny, New Jersey native, Harkes had the luxury of growing up in a footballing paradise. Harkes excelled through the youth ranks and ended up at the University Virginia, under current LA Galaxy head coach, Bruce Arena, where he won the Hermann Trophy, which designates the best college player in the country. Upon graduation Harkes began his career in Albany, NY but transferred after a season to Sheffield Wednesday in the English Football League.

Then this happened:

They say all players have a marquee moment. Well, here it is. It was this thunderbolt that earned Harkes, the league’s goal of the year. Beyond that, Harkes became the first American player to play in the Premier League when Sheffield Wednesday gained promotion. He also became the first American to score in a cup final, when Wednesday lost to Arsenal 2-1 in the League Cup Final.

Harkes would play another season in the Premier League with Derby County and West Ham United. During that season, the MLS announced that it was to have its inaugural season in 1996 and Harkes signed with DC United later that year.

harkes dc untited

Harkes played with DC United, the New England Revolution and the Columbus Crew during his time in the MLS.

He also had a stellar international career. He was part of the 1990 and 1994 World Cup squads but was famously cut from the 1998 team just weeks before the World Cup was to begin. The head coach at the time, Steve Sampson, cited “leadership issues” as the reason Harkes was removed from the squad. In his book, “Captain for Life,” Harkes criticized Sampson for lacking “credibility to a group of guys who had hundreds and hundreds of caps among them” and “putting a huge amount of pressure on young, internationally inexperienced players”, and concluded, “I can’t think of one thing that Steve did right in the months leading up to the World Cup.”  The USMNT lost all three games during that World Cup and ended up finishing last overall in the tournament. Harkes would be called up again to the national team in 1999 by his former college coach, Bruce Arena and would finish his career with 90 CAPS.

harkes usmnt

Harkes has been a youth director, a color commentator, and an assistant coach since his time playing.  In 2005, he was inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame. He is one of the of the most accomplished American players ever and one that broke many borders for future American players. Player’s that are able to push the limits of what those have done before are true leaders and inspiration for all those to follow. We thank John Harkes for his incredible contribution to the game and that is why is this week’s Throwback Thursday Player of the Week!

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America Needs a Holden Midfielder

         When Jurgen Klinsmann arrived he came riding a wave of hope and good favor. After the reign of Bob Bradley, Jurgen managed to say all the right things to uplift the US soccer fans. According to him, his coaching style would promote possession-based soccer and a sustained attack, not the hard-nosed defense and counter-attacking that Bob Bradley had favored. US soccer fans, most of which have become enamored with the style of soccer promoted by Barcelona in recent years, saw this as an opportunity for the US to change the make-up of its ingrained style of play. If Jurgen was successful, then the US could finally compete regularly with the rest of the world.
         It’s been about two years and there are varying opinions on whether Jurgen is on the right path to achieving his goal. None would agree he has come close to achieving it, but there are those who think he was given too much credit when he was hired while Bob Bradley has not given enough credit for the US successes achieved during his tenure. At some point the wave of hope Jurgen has been riding will crash onto the shore and recede into the ocean and there are those who wonder whether it will leave anything of importance in its wake?
         Making excuses for Jurgen has become a habit for US soccer fans to excuse the USMNT failures during his time in command. However a lot of these excuses have a basis in fact. The small-talent pool of the US is a big factor into why Jurgen has had, and will have, trouble changing the style of soccer the US plays. Not every soccer player is capable of playing the style of soccer Jurgen wishes to implement so he will not have a wealth of choices. The possession based, attacking-style type of soccer Jurgen wishes to build must be implemented from the ground-up and the only way to replicate it at the senior level is to be able to utilize those players who can fit into his system. Club coaches like Brendan Rodgers can acquire players such as Joe Allen and Phillipe Coutinho to fit into his system but Jurgen cannot. The loss of one or more skilled players can be impossible to replace. Fans have seen what the loss of Landon Donovan has done but very few have been able to notice how the loss of Stuart Holden has affected the USMNT.
         Stuart Holden was one of America’s fastest rising stars. He rose through the ranks of MLS to earn a spot on the Bolton Wanderers who were playing in the Premier League at the time. During his second year he was an integral part of the team and helped them earn 7th place in the Premier League. Unfortunately, he suffered a nasty injury from a tackle by Manchester United’s Johnny Evans that caused an anterior crucial ligament injury that would rule him out for 6 months. However, even though Holden would miss the final two months of the season he was still awarded Bolton’s 2011 Player of the Year, such was his importance to the team. Stuart Holden would arrive back for the 2012 season before aggravating the injury in his first game back and missing the rest of the season. Bolton would then get relegated and there were many who believed Bolton’s relegation was due in large part to Holden’s absence.
          Stuart Holden has had terrible luck with injuries. In addition to his knee complications from the Johnny Evans tackle, he also suffered a  broken leg before the 2010 World Cup. Although he was on the roster for the World Cup in South Africa, it was clear he had not fully regained match fitness and thus only featured in one game as a substitute. Holden was already starting to gain a reputation that rivaled Dempsey in the Premier League before his rising career was tragically stunted. As a result, not only has Jurgen been deprived of his talent, but Bob Bradley had been as well. Michael Bradley is an extremely talented center midfielder but the US has no one else of his quality in their central midfield depth chart. Torres and Kljestan are skilled technical players but they are not explosive players while Danny Williams and Jermaine Jones are not technical enough. Stuart Holden at his peak was a technically gifted player, who contained great vision and composure which gave him a great knack for igniting an offense. His combination with Michael Bradley would have provided the base on which the USMNT offense could be built. They would have been the distributors who provided the link between the defense and the offense.
         A soccer team that wants to rely on a possession-based offense needs players that are skilled enough to make the right passes and hold onto the ball. The US has a small pool of technical players on the pitch who need to do a large part of the organizing of the possession-style of play by moving across the pitch to collect the ball and redistributing it. These players are essential to the flow of the attack. Similar to how a general would strategize during a war the central midfielders in this speicfic type of offense must dictate when and where the ball must go depending on the placement of the opposing player personnel. In fact, this is part of the reason Michael Bradley earned his nickname “The General” while playing in Italy because he was so adept at organizing the offense. His importance for the USMNT has become more and more apparent these past few years where his composure on the ball has helped maintain an offense that has struggled mightily at times. He is no longer just the defensive midfielder he was during his early years. Unfortunately, the US has no one to pair with him.  Dempsey is not the answer because his offensive skill set cannot be wasted by running around the pitch looking for the ball while Landon Donovan is better suited on the wing. Every good general needs a second-in-command. If Stuart Holden can recover from his injury and regain his form then our general can finally have his second-in-command. That missing cog could revolutionize the American attack right before the 2014 World Cup. In other words, Stuart Holden needs to regain match fitness and form as soon as possible because the US attack will make a drastic improvement with his return.