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Ian Harkes, Chris Durkin lead academy revolution in D.C. United’s midfield

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Two homegrown signings are pushing for playing time during United’s preseason

The two youngest players under contract with D.C. United happen to be linked together in a couple of ways. United’s most recent homegrown signings Chris Durkin and Ian Harkes are roommates on this preseason trip, and there are hopes that both players are regulars in United’s engine room for years to come.

Being roommates on this trip have given the two a chance to look back at the good old days.

“We’ve had some good discussions about how the RFK auxiliary field used to be in bad shape,” Durkin told B&RU about the field that the academy trains on. “We both remember that. We’re happy that there’s a new turf field there.”

Durkin, soon to be 17, and Harkes, 21, are part of a new era in United’s storied MLS history. Construction on their new stadium should begin soon. Luciano Acosta, via a club record transfer fee, moved from Boca Juniors to the Black-and-Red on a permanent basis. And Steve Birnbaum, on the cusp of being a regular with US national team, signed a new contract in December despite interest from European clubs.

And there’s a chance for Durkin and Harkes to be the core of Olsen’s midfield, a core made possible through United’s academy system. It’s an academy system that hasn’t exactly churned out regular starters since Bill Hamid and Andy Najar signed in 2009 and 2010. Of the five players signed as homegrowns in between, only Jalen Robinson remains with United.

Now though, it appears that Durkin and Harkes will play some part in United’s upcoming season, in which they hope to build upon the foundation from the second part of last year, in which the Black-and-Red were among the highest scoring teams in the league.

But first, the grind of a professional-level preseason.

“The team has been great, everyone has been welcoming,” Harkes told B&RU at an interview at the team’s hotel on Monday. “Training sessions have been good, they’ve sharp and intense, trying to get the fitness up. It’s been fun so far.”

Though they are United’s two youngest players, there is still some age separation between the two, as well as some differences in where they are in their careers. Durkin, who turns 17 on February 8th, is trying to push his way into the conversation for inclusion on game-day rosters. When he signed last year, the thought was that Durkin would spend most of 2017 with the US under-17 national team, who are hoping to qualify for October’s under-17 World Cup in India.

“Everyday, I get to prove to the coaching staff that I belong there, and I’m into this for competing during the season,” Durkin told B&RU on Monday.” “[The toughest part of preseason is] gaining the trust of the coaching staff. Maybe they think I’m too young, or not ready yet.”

“But I want to prove to them I am ready to take the next step to MLS. I believe that I can help the team in some ways this season. The plan was to be with the U17s until the World Cup, but I wanted to be in an environment where it will challenge me more. It’s definitely done that so far.”

Harkes on the other hand, having won the MAC Hermann Trophy as the best player in NCAA soccer while captaining Wake Forest University to the College Cup final, is pushing for a starting spot. He’s projected to play as a number 8 in Ben Olsen’s lineup, an in between player that help bridge the gap between the defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder.

At Monday’s training session, Harkes lined up alongside what seemed to be a first team during the end of practice scrimmage. Chances like that have Harkes thinking big for his rookie season.

“I’ve enjoyed the trainings. I’ve been confident in how I’m playing. There’s a lot to improve on,” Harkes said. “But if I continue perform consistently, hopefully I can push for a spot.”

Atypical of some of the other big stars in the collegiate game, Harkes opted to stay at college for all four years. He earned his degree from Wake Forest last December, the same month in which the Demon Deacons came agonizingly close to winning their second ever College Cup.

Harkes had thought about leaving school early, but with the urging of his parents, decided to stay in North Carolina to finish his education. And it didn’t hurt that he was playing with Wake, a school known for churning out MLS draft picks.

“I was thinking of leaving early, maybe after my sophomore year,” Harkes said on Monday. “I think there were still parts of my game that needed to develop. And I thought Wake Forest was still going to give me the opportunity, with the coaching and development in that league.”

There’s also the real prospects of Harkes moving to England at some point in his career. After the College Cup, Harkes went to England, where he was born while his father John played for several teams, and tested the waters. There were trials, and some serious consideration, but in the end he signed with United.

Plus, Harkes had Olsen and General Manager Dave Kasper selling him on playing at the same club that his dad did during the birth of MLS.

“Some of the timing, with the transfer windows and things like that didn’t allow it to be as serious as I wanted it to be,” Harkes said of the interest in him from England. “Just with how long the trials were, and getting over there and setting up with different teams, it takes a while. They don’t really know me coming out of college. You really have to prove yourself.”

“Eventually it’s a place I want to get back to. But I’m just excited to have an opportunity here. I’m going to work extremely hard for D.C.”

Though Harkes has almost five years on Durkin, there is one aspect in which Durkin’s career is slightly ahead of his teammate’s. Durkin does have one official appearance for the first team, when he started and played 86 minutes against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in last year’s US Open Cup.

Though that game was almost eight months ago, and Durkin has had games with the U17 national team and the Richmond Kickers since then, the youngster still vividly remembers his first outing in the Black-and-Red.

“I remember the game pretty well. My first touch of the game, I remember [the ball] bouncing up on me, and I think just trying to get back into it, and gain my focus again,” Durkin said. “But I’ve been used to playing older guys, and the team I was with, every single guy helped me and supported me along the way.”

The help from his more experienced teammates may have helped, but Durkin’s experiences in United’s academy system also helped pave the way, according to Harkes.

“It’s a lot of credit to the academy, and how they prepare you for the next step, with the tournaments they bring you to, and a lot of the exposure,” said Harkes, adding “It’s awesome to see [Durkin] do well,” on his fellow homegrown player.