Around this time last year, Ian Harkes was gearing up for the NCAA tournament with Wake Forest Demon Deacons, a M.A.C. Hermann Trophy front-runner who had interest from D.C. United as well as opportunities in England. In the end, Harkes took the Hermann, and got Wake within a penalty kick shootout of a national title. After spending some time in England sorting out just how good those options across the Atlantic were, he opted to take United’s offer, signing a Homegrown contract to suit up for the same club his father helped get off the ground.
The assumptions were that the dominance Harkes showed in college soccer would translate well for a Black-and-Red side that entered last winter looking for help in the midfield. Granted, United didn’t appear badly in need of another #8, but Harkes still looked like a sure improvement on the attacking side of that job.
After not appearing in the season opener, Harkes started 19 of the next 21 league matches for D.C., nearly always in the #8 role his skillset dovetails well with. Even as United transitioned from 4141 to 4231 at the end of May, Harkes maintained his spot. In fact, that deeper starting point helped staunch the flow of big chances United was giving up at the time (at least until they came out of the Gold Cup break and fell flat on their collective face).
With a bit more luck, Harkes would have ended the season with more than the 2 goals and 1 assist in league play (along with an Open Cup goal against Christos FC). Harkes ended up hitting the woodwork more times than he actually scored as a rookie, showing a knack for winning headers on free kicks and making the kind of late runs that defenses hate to have to deal with.
Harkes also ended the season as the most accurate passer (82.7%) on the team, bar the small sample sizes that Rob Vincent and Russell Canouse had. He also contributed 0.8 key passes per 90, better than any other player who spent time in the holding midfield line. He also managed 0.8 successful dribbles per game, a key skill when it comes to breaking out of crowded central midfields to keep the ball moving.
So for a team that needed to be better as an attacking force all season, there are some solid numbers underpinning the idea that Harkes was not a major reason for United failing to score goals or create chances. He could have done better (literally every player on the team could have done better), but he was the best option for the #8 role when it comes to making the attack more fluent and less reliant on long balls.
Why, then, did Marcelo Sarvas take over for Harkes as a starter? Part of that was simply a mid-season ankle injury that kept Harkes out for all of August and half of September. It may have been a lingering problem that, given the harsh reality of the standings, the club decided not to have him push through. After being deemed fit enough to play, Harkes only played the full 90 in two of the final six matches of the season. After returning to play a full match in the 3-0 loss at Chicago, he played a combined 5 minutes in D.C.’s next two games, and only played the full 90 one other time from then on.
However, I have to give credit to my friend Brian, who as the season wore on made note of a trend I never noticed until he brought it up. Namely, the issue is not that Harkes is a bad player, but rather that United’s results with Harkes starting were bad. It’s certainly not something that can be taken as a causal relationship, but it is something that requires work.
How strong is this trend? United’s record with Harkes as a starter was 5W-2D-15L, with a -30 goal difference (18 for, 48 against). Without him, they went 4W-3D-5L and +1 (13 for, 12 against). Even when Canouse came in and was such an obvious upgrade as United’s #6, this was unchanged. With Canouse and Harkes as the starting central midfield duo, United lost all three times, conceding nine times while not scoring (note: these games were late-season matches at Chicago, at Columbus, and at Portland, so degree of difficulty is certainly a factor). With Canouse starting next to a different #8, United went 4W-1D-2L and +5, including the three straight 1-0 wins at home over bad teams and the 4-0 win over San Jose.
Now, we should cover a significant qualifier for these numbers. Thanks in part to his time out injured coinciding with a stretch where the Black-and-Red were at RFK for five out of six games, Harkes only managed eight starts at home all season, and none of them came after July 22nd. In those home starts, United went 3W-1D-4L (right in line with their 6W-3D-8L season home record).
None of this should be taken to indicate that Harkes is a problem. Rather, it may serve as one reason why Marcelo — whose defensive usage numbers are all markedly higher than Harkes — stayed in the team even as younger players elsewhere became starters. It’s worth pointing out that in college, Harkes was on a national contender used to dominating games and playing aesthetically pleasing soccer. With United, the job was different, the back four was exposed more often, and perhaps this team simply fared better with a more conservative central midfield pairing in place to hide flaws elsewhere.
All that said, it seems straightforward to say that Harkes is a good young player, and that United still needs to a) figure out how to best incorporate him and b) coach him up so that they’re tougher to attack when he’s in games. Becoming a more front-foot team may also leverage what he’s good at while hiding a bit of what he’s not as good at.
With all that out of the way, you know what time it is:
Do you want Ian Harkes back for the 2018 season?
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