Harkes to ASN: “You Need to Be Humble and Hungry”
August 17, 2016
JOHN HARKES was a dominant youth player out of New Jersey and went on to have a stellar career at the University of Virginia and then in the professional ranks, where he became the first-ever American to play in the English Premier League.
He would later became a Major League Soccer pioneer, in 1996 he became the first-ever player at D.C. United where he won the first MLS Cup and a U.S. Open Cup in the league’s inaugural season.
On the international stage he was capped more than 90 times by the U.S. national team and played in both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups.
After being a familiar face in broadcasting, Harkes, now 49, embarked on a coaching career last year when he accepted the head coaching job at FC Cincinnati—which plays in the United Soccer League.
So far it seems like a smart move. Attendance has been remarkable and on April 16 FC Cincinnati broke a USL attendance record with 20,497 on hand to watch a game against Louisville City FC. Then, on May 14, FC Cincinnati broke its own record with 23,375 for a game against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. On July 16, Cincinnati set the record for highest attendance at a soccer match in Ohio with a crowd of 35,061 for a friendly against Crystal Palace.
On the field, Harkes has put on a winning product despite the club being in its inaugural season. FC Cincinnati currently sits in third place in the 14-team Eastern Conference with 41 points through 21 games.
American Soccer Now spoke with the former U.S. captain about his transition to coaching, success in Cincinnati, youth development in the United States, and USL’s place in America’s soccer landscape.
Brian Sciaretta for ASN: Since retiring you’ve been involved with broadcasting, assistant coaching, and as the director of youth development for D.C. United. When did you know you wanted to be a coach?
John Harkes: I think I always wanted to be a coach. It's part of staying in the game, loving the game, and always learning from the game. It's really important for me. The timing was right. The opportunity presented itself and it was good for my family. It was good for me to be challenge in a different way. That’s really how I got started.
This season has gone fairly well. When you look at what has happened on and off the field, from the team’s concept of where we are, we’ve been in the top four throughout the season—which is great. The players are excellent. Now I’ve got a great coaching staff the around me. Off the field, the club has done a great job bringing the fanbase—which has been absolutely incredible. The city has a bit of buzz right now. Things are going well, it’s positive, but I am also very aware of all the pitfalls. You’ve got to sustain that. You have to keep things going and stay balanced throughout the season. We’re continuing to push towards the top of the table.
ASN: You’ve played for some impressive coaches. Who are some of your mentors and idols? Which coaches influenced you?
Harkes: I was very fortunate to have been coached by some brilliant coaches. Bruce Arena was a big inspiration. Dave Sarachan and even Bob Bradley, who I knew through my university days and D.C. United days.
But I’ve always been a fan of Sir Alex Ferguson—his worth ethic and the discipline he instills into his teams. You look at the tactical application of what a Jurgen Klopp can do. I’ve studied Klopp as well in terms of his pressing and the shape of his teams. What you end up doing, and what I’ve always done, is continue to educate yourself. You study and you have a feel for these things. Those types of influences were a big deal and are constantly giving you a daily reminder of the work ethic that needs to be put in. I’m enjoying the hard work. So far so good.
ASN: Different coaches try to implement different philosophies and approaches to the game. Sometimes it’s not up to the coach because he might not have the right players at a particular moment to fit his philosophy. But ideally, what do you want to be the hallmarks of a John Harkes-coached team?
Harkes: The Cincinnati team that is playing now is a very possession-oriented team. It likes to build out of the back but also at the same time you keep in mind that the game will dictate to you. You have to be able to adapt and recognize that and adjust through tactics. There has to be some flexibility in the way that we play. The moving, the ball rotation, the circulation, the quick touches, that type of passing and the off-ball [movement]—it’s very good. That’s what I like to do. Certainly on the defensive transition side, we need to be smart, get into good positions so the team needs to be fit to do that type of pressing. I like to press the game as soon as the ball is turned over. If we can win it within the first 5-10 yards, then that is better than chasing 40-50 yards. We have to do the work right away.
ASN: FC Cincinnati has drawn some very impressive crowds despite never having really been in the mix for Major League Soccer. Do these crowds surprise you? What do you think created this attachment between the city and the team?
Harkes: I think it’s a lot of things and a lot of variables. From the marketing to the general manager, Jeff Berding, and the work he’s been doing in the front office—it’s been tremendous. There’s been a hunger and a void there in bringing soccer to Cincinnati. They’ve tried in the past but this seemed to be a very good time for everything. Timing is very important and Carl Lindner, the owner, coming on board was massive with his vision and philosophy and what he has done for the city of Cincinnati along with his family for many, many years.
The fans in Cincinnati, they’ve just been dying for this. The timing was perfect.
ASN: Is there a mood around the club and the fans that they want to be an MLS team someday or are they satisfied with their lower-division status?
Harkes: I think they would love to play at the highest level but I think they are enjoying this process of what we’re doing—playing in a bigger stadium with a great gameday experience. I am sure it is a question for them [in the front office]. But more often than not, I hear feedback from them that they love the support in Cincinnati regardless of what level they are playing at. But I think the city itself would love to be at a higher level. If that day comes and the opportunity presents itself to go to MLS, then that is a question for our ownership group and general manager.
ASN: What has been your impression of USL and how it fits or has changed the American soccer landscape? It seems to have found a role to give younger players opportunities that aren’t there in MLS at the moment. How important is this league?
Harkes: It’s very important. It provides such great opportunities to so many players to go and compete and get better every day. The competition has grown tremendously over the past few years. We are up to 29 teams now and we’re looking to expand even more. They’re looking to get Division 2 status. There are so many good, positive, and optimistic things in the future of the USL. And it is changing. We are, as a country, always in a changing landscape and we see that even at the USL level right now. You have the MLS II teams and the standalone clubs right now. For us to come out of the game strong and do what we’re doing, is incredible. We just have to sustain that.
ASN: Looking back to your days as a young player and the infrastructure that exists today, obviously it’s a different ballgame. How would the sport have been different back then had the USL existed in its current format during the early days of MLS?
Harkes: Obviously it would have provided the opportunity that wasn’t there for us back in the day. There were a lot of players in our generation that were looking to play at a higher level and challenge themselves and see where it could take them. If this structure today was in place back then, you would have had far more players stay within the U.S. and honing their skills here. Although some will still always have that ambition to go overseas. For me, it worked out very well and I was able to break through as an American player in the Premier League.
But the tiered structure is fantastic. There is a place to play for everybody. There is a level for everybody at any age.
ASN: Do you think not having these present opportunities in the past forced some players, who would have turned out to be good professionals, to fall through the cracks and give up the sport entirely because there wasn’t a USL back then?
Harkes: That’s an accurate point. Because of the lack of opportunities and the tiered levels, I believe that a lot of players have been lost. They maybe would have pursued something but at that time it didn’t make sense or wasn’t there.
You still see it today but it’s not as much. But now there are more players playing and it has become competitive. That’s strength and it is a foundation to build off of. I think it is great for American soccer overall and it’s great for the federation. With more players, you have more depth.
ASN: It’s a tricky question, but with the expansion of Major League Soccer, the NASL in existence, and the expansion of USL where some teams like yours have shown the ability to provide a top-tier environment, do you think that promotion/relegation is attainable in the United States? You’ve seen it in England but do you think that it is beneficial and should be a long-term goal here?
Harkes: I’d like to see it. I think it is something that would be pretty special to the fan base but also it would put clubs in a situation where you win three games in a season—then you’re facing relegation and you need to earn the right to stay up. It makes it very competitive and when the competition is strong, it makes for better games and an overall higher levels of expectation.
For me it is something that I got used to playing overseas in England. You can do it but you need to have a very strong foundation to do it—and obviously the ownership groups. We’re starting to mature a lot more and a lot quicker as a soccer nation, and that is tremendous. Maybe those are the things that are going to be more quickly talked about instead of down the road. Maybe it’s more of a short-term situation that people can look at say it is a reality now.
ASN: You were a big part of the U.S. national team for a long time. How closely do you follow the team these days and what is your take on its current direction?
Harkes: I follow the U.S. national team all the time. It is part of my job and it’s in my heart. Certainly they’ve had some great days and great games—even months. Then there’s been other times where it’s not so steady and not so stable. But that’s part of being a national team.
We’re hoping that there can be a little more success for the national team. I know there is a lot of hard work that is going into it and you just hope that it pays off.
ASN: You were the first American of the modern era to do many things in the sport—like play in the Premier League, score in a League Cup Final, and win English Football’s “Goal of the Year.” Now there is a 17-year-old American, Christian Pulisic, who is trailblazing in Germany for Borussia Dortmund. What is your take on him and his future in the sport?
Harkes: First of all, I give a lot of credit to the way he was raised within his family and his work ethic. His talent is God-given but he’s got that drive that wants to push him overseas. It’s incredible what he’s achieved at such a young age. I think as he continues to grow, he can be a top player for the U.S.
These type of players you see all around the world but it’s a bit unfortunate we haven’t too much success at the U-20s or even the U-23s. I would really love to see our Olympic team qualify and do well. Now you have more opportunities for a guy like Christian to come in and play. Maybe that type of winning coexists with the development you want. For me it’s another step for him to be challenged and he’s doing that on a daily basis at one of the biggest clubs in the world. Dortmund is just a fantastic club with a great style of play as well. What an education he’s getting at such a young age. It would be nice to see if he can transition that over to playing for the national team.
You see Neymar going to the Olympics. Why wouldn’t they play for the U-20s or the U-23s? They should. I think it would be good for the strength and foundation for our federation at the national team level.
ASN: As a USL coach, you are surrounded by young American players—either coaching them, coaching against them, or scouting them. What is your broad take on the direction of youth development in the United States? Is it heading in the right direction and is the typical young American player improving?
Harkes: You are seeing more depth within our programs—guys who have been coached properly with solid fundamentals and technique. They understand the awareness. I guess what I would like to see a little more of is that passion and inner drive to push to that top level. You see it quite a bit but hopefully it continues to grow and people say the younger players of today, both men and women, say this is something they are dedicated completely to, they want it badly, and they’re hungry.
I keep saying to my team at FC Cincinnati to stay humble and hungry. You need to be humble and hungry in order to be a consistently a good pro and make it at the highest levels. Hopefully that continues for generations to come in our country. We do have great players coming through and we can be competitive at the top levels on a consistent basis. That would be excellent.
ASN: Jurgen Klinsmann said this past summer that in determining whether or not a player makes it as a profession and lives up to his potential, talent is only 50% of it – maybe less. The majority of it is what you do with it. There are so many factors like decision making, the hunger/drive to succeed, mental strength, and confidence that play a role. That’s played a role as to why the United States has struggled historically at the 18-23 age levels. Do you see the USL a big part of fixing that?
Harkes: I’ve constantly told our general manager and our owner the type of players I go after. It’s not necessarily always going to be the guy with the best ability but rather someone who has that emotional drive, that mentality. If you have that mentality and you can control it—you can make it. It’s a good combination that is out there, not just with our group. Even across the country you are starting to see different types of players with talent and ability. The big test is going to be: Can you emotionally handle it at the highest levels? How much can you be challenged and pushed?