As the 2021 MLS SuperDraft kicks off next week, Jack Harrison, who was the No. 1 overall pick back in 2016 when he was selected by Chicago Fire and then traded to NYCFC, recalls his days in MLS as some of the fondest memories of his young career.
"It was literally a dream come true, being in the U.S [already] and knowing about MLS and everything," says the 24-year-old winger, who is on his third year on loan with Leeds United, from Manchester City. "If I could have chosen one team to be at, it would be New York City...the amount of class that they had on that team. Working with Patrick Vieira, having the affiliation with Man City, all of these things put together, the style of play, everything, it was just somewhere I wanted to be...it was like my second home."
Harrison's journey is an intriguing story. His dream of becoming a professional footballer, which actually started with Liverpool and Manchester United when he was seven years old, took him back and forth between England and the U.S. At 14, he moved to Massachusetts from Bolton to attend Berkshire School, one of the biggest powerhouses in high school soccer in the country. After winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year for high school soccer in 2015, he entered the draft and began his professional career with New York.
Now at Leeds United, after returning to Manchester City, who own NYCFC, Harrison says he still misses his days in NYC, including the food.
"[Laughs] The pizza [here in Yorkshire] is nowhere near as good. I can tell you that right now. The food is something I miss. I love my food but here at Leeds we have weight targets so I have to be really careful about what I eat and stuff," says Harrison, referencing mandates put in place by legendary manager Marcelo Bielsa, who has returned Leeds to England's top flight for the first time after 16 years. To say the side has been entertaining upon its return is an understatement. Leeds, like Jack, have been incredibly impressive and are only one win away from the top half of the table with 30 goals scored so far, the fifth most in the league. That's remarkable for a newly-promoted side. But like Bielsa's tactics, they are also erratic defensively. They have conceded 33 goals (only West Bromwich Albion have allowed more) and this past weekend were embarrassed by League Two side Crawley Town in the third round of the F.A. Cup.
What makes Leeds so unique is that whether it's Crawley or Liverpool, the tactics will stay the same. As Harrison mentions, they won't change it for anyone. "I think this is another reason why a lot of people admire him [Bielsa], for how he works. It doesn't matter who we're playing against...we're going to continue playing our intense, aggressive style of play," he says. "There's still areas we can improve on but I stand by what I said 100% and I am sure Marcelo would agree as well. It doesn't matter who we're playing against, we have to continue our style of play and continue doing what we know has been best for us and what's worked for us, and what's gotten us to where we are today, which is the Premier League. There's something that we're doing right and we have to continue doing it."
"It doesn't matter who we play against...we're gonna continue [playing] our intense aggressive style..."@Harrison_Jack11 chats to @lmechegaray to discuss Marcelo Bielsa's style and what it's like to play for @LUFC, his days with @NYCFC, his love for NYC and much more!— Qué Golazo Podcast (@QueGolazoPod) January 8, 2021
The philosophy has also worked in Harrison's favor as his game has developed immensely since his days at NYCFC. Earlier in the season, he became the first loanee to make 100 appearances for the club and thanks to Bielsa, he has flourished. In this campaign, he's had seven goal contributions (three goals and four assists), an accomplishment made all the more impressive because he's not a forward. Taking forwards out of the equation, Jack Grealish, who has 12, is the only Englishman to contribute to more goals than Harrison.
Everything is down to the day-to-day and because it's Bielsa, it's all about the intricacies of training. It's regimental and carefully designed. Harrison says they follow well-planned patterns that have to be repeated over and over. They constantly work in small units. There is yelling and pushing limits, but it's also organized. It's the equivalent of a piano concerto playing Chopin in the middle of a fire with an NFL-training-camp mentality added on top. Bielsa sees these sessions as a puzzle, where you first need to assemble all the pieces in order to see the whole picture, but most puzzles don't come with the speed and physicality demands of a Bielsa side. "I'm sure you know about the Murderball sessions that we call them. These sessions are quite hectic," says Harrison, smiling as he explains the exhausting routine. "There's a lot of shouting and running about and it's physically enduring. But a lot of our training sessions are very specific, our passing patterns that we do - they have to be done in a certain way...how the rotation of the ball, it can't go sideways, it has to go forward. The amount of detail that Marcelo goes into is incredible and this is one of the reasons a lot of managers and yourself admire his work and his methodology."
Communication and language barriers are, for some odd reason, sometimes a topic of criticism with Leeds United but Harrison says it's never an issue and actually, both the squad and the manager are learning each other's languages. For what it's worth, Harrison's Spanish is actually not bad. "It's getting a little bit better," he says. "I studied Spanish in school for a little bit so I know how to formulate sentences...my girlfriend is actually Costa Rican so I understand a lot of the Spanish, I think I get a bit shy when it comes to actually speaking it."
Bielsa, for his part, is taking English lessons too. "He tries to speak more and more English," says Harrison. "In fact, a couple of weeks ago he read one of his speeches in English for the first time and that was incredible to hear it from him and just to know he's trying. But [him speaking Spanish] has been good for me cause I get to learn more!"
When prompted to speak a little, he quickly diverted. "Yo no quiero practicar, no quiero hablar…" he said laughing albeit with a good accent.
For now, all that matters is climbing up the table, continuing to deliver in the Premier League and showing fans just how far this team can go.
"We've shown as a team glimpses of what we're capable of, it's just about being consistent with that and making it last a long enduring season," he says. "The first season when Marcelo came, it was difficult as it took everyone by surprise and we didn't know what to expect but the following years we've been able to mentally and physically prepare and now we know what's coming and what to expect...making European football would be unbelievable but making top 10 would be a great accomplishment for a club like Leeds United. Especially after being away for so long...I think it would be a great accomplishment for us as a club."
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