As part of his weekly series on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley sits down with former D.C. United and US national team captain John Harkes, who was the first American player to play in England’s top flight, and continues to stay around the game as a broadcaster, youth coach and all-around ambassador.
BRADLEY: So, catch us up. What are you up to?
HARKES: I’m doing television work on D.C. United games and hosting a Sirius XM radio show called Counterattack with Tony Meola. That keeps me busy during the week.
BRADLEY: Are you on the field at all?
HARKES: I’m coaching youth soccer, my daughter’s U-14 team, which is excellent. I was playing as a neutral up until recently, but now they’re all faster than I am, so no more. I do a lot of instruction and coaching for kids, helping them prepare for college.
BRADLEY: And your son Ian, he’s a college player, right?
HARKES: Ian is a freshman at Wake Forest. He’s enjoying it, handling the transition, and learning a lot every game. It’s great for him and he’s having fun with it.
BRADLEY: Are you happy doing what you’re doing? Are you looking to do more on the field?
HARKES: We all get caught thinking that we’re going to be happier doing other things, but for me now, family is No. 1. Right now, I have time to see my daughter, who’s a junior in high school play, or make a road trip down to see Ian play, and coach a U-14 team with my wife, so those things are good. So, I’m careful to think things could be better somewhere else. We’ll see what the future brings.
BRADLEY: Do you have a desire to get back to MLS as a coach?
Former D.C. United and US national team star John Harkes says he wonders if he'll ever get a chance coaching in MLS. He served as an assistant under Bruce Arena with New York Red Bulls from 2006-07.
HARKES: I think there’s always a place in the back of your mind, where you think about getting back in the league. Learning under Bruce Arena with the Red Bulls was a great experience for me. It was only a short period of time, about a year and a half, and we felt we were trying to build something. So, naturally, I wonder if and when I’ll get another shot. Coaching is like teaching and I enjoy it. So, we’ll see.
BRADLEY: What are your overall impressions of the league in 2013?
HARKES: It’s extremely competitive, and more so recently. I think there was a period of time where expansion came quickly and there was a concern about if we had a deep enough player pool to fill all those spots. Now, I think it’s come full circle. It’s very strong. There are some teams that are struggling, D.C. United, Toronto, Chivas USA and, surprisingly, San Jose. But teams are very competitive and I think the style of play is improving. In the past, we might have questioned the effort in some games, they seemed a bit slow, but a lot of the games now, the pace of the game seems good. Overall, I think the league is very strong. And from a business standpoint, MLS has proven to have a very sound structure and keeps building.
BRADLEY: What teams do you enjoy watching the most?
HARKES: There are a couple. When Sporting KC gets it right with their 4-3-3 [formation], I think they’re entertaining. I have always liked Real Salt Lake’s approach to the game under Jason Kreis. I think the Seattle Sounders are playing some great soccer. I think Caleb Porter has done a great job this year, transitioning into the pro game and getting the Timbers to play well. With that said, I think the teams that have to play on turf, that has an adverse effect on the game.
BRADLEY: You mentioned D.C. United, the club you captained in 1996. What are your feelings about what they’ve gone through in this difficult season?
HARKES: Former players all have a connection to their clubs, especially when you’ve had success at those clubs. It’s been, at times, painful for D.C. United. But you understand that sometimes things are cyclical. Unfortunately, some poor decisions this off-season resulted in some highly-paid players who have not contributed. That’s hurt the environment and culture.
BRADLEY: It’s also been a long struggle for United to get a stadium deal done. How have you dealt with that roller coaster, as someone who’s still connected to the club?
Harkes with D.C. United in 1997. He says some of his favorite players in the game today are Portland's Diego Valeri, Houston's Giles Barnes and the New England trio of Diego Fagundez, Keyln Rowe and Lee Nguyen.
HARKES: Seems closer than ever to becoming a reality. They’re just trying to get through that final bit of political red tape. It would be great for this to happen to D.C. United. We’ve seen how these soccer-specific stadiums have helped teams re-launch and re-brand. It kind of wakes people up. You need to get it right on the field, but having your own place gives you an identity. I think D.C. United has the type of following that could help make it a special place.
BRADLEY: Ever think about how the great D.C. teams would look in today’s MLS?
HARKES: I don’t think much about it. If you look too much in the past, you don’t enjoy the present. I am enjoying the league and the games.
BRADLEY: Any players, in particular, you enjoy watching?
HARKES: I think Diego Valeri is a great player to watch. Giles Barnes has shown me a lot this year what a special striker he can be. Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen are fun to watch, so many little touches, they remind me of a smaller Barcelona-type team. And that’s really nice to see. You can go around the league and you’re seeing some good things. Throw Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez in there, too. Those guys have really developed.
BRADLEY: And as we head down the stretch, what stories interest you the most?
HARKES: That’s a big story in New York. Can they finally get that first trophy? And what Landon Donovan has done since coming back from his sabbatical. And for me, still, the best player in the league, the best striker in the league, is Robbie Keane. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a harder-working player who’s as intelligent as he is with his runs off the ball. And when the ball’s turned over, he’s one of the hardest-working strikers I’ve ever seen.
BRADLEY: Finally, if you could put yourself in your prime and play for one team in MLS right now, what team would that be?
HARKES: Wow, what a question. I think when I look at games and players, everything is in the eye of the beholder. A lot of what I look for is the awareness, the intelligence, the first touch. I’m not necessarily looking for the big, fast athlete. So ... I think it would be fun to play for a team like LA, or Sporting KC or Seattle. I mean, Seattle, can you imagine playing in front of those fans, week after week? That’s amazing. I don’t think in 1996, we ever really imagined that, what we see in Seattle, would be a reality in 2013. So, maybe that’s where I’d want to go.