Gonzaga junior Ian Harkes tried a few years of basketball. There was even one season of baseball — a memory that still elicits chuckles from the 16-year-old. Yet through his forays in other sports, Harkes knew he was meant to play the game that was as deeply engrained in his genes as anything else.
The son of former U.S. national team and D.C. United captain John Harkes, one of the most influential midfielders in American soccer history, and Cindi Harkes, a star at the University of Virginia and member of the Virginia-D.C. Soccer Hall of Fame, Ian Harkes had a soccer ball at his feet as soon as he could stand.
“It’s just been first nature to me,” he said.
And though being a member of such a prominent soccer family — his grandfather is a longtime youth coach and his uncle won four national titles as a player at Virginia — comes with inherent pressures, Ian Harkes this season has turned his last name into merely a side note.
The junior leads the No. 4 Eagles in goals (13) and assists (10) and will captain them on Sunday in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game against top-ranked DeMatha at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown at 8 p.m.
Always very technical, Harkes has emerged this year as a more confident player. When Harkes enrolled at Gonzaga, he was 5 feet 2, 100 pounds.
Over the past two years, he sprouted nine inches and gained 50 pounds. And his growth has coincided with his maturation into one of the area’s best midfielders.
“He’s always had the talent,” said Eagles Coach Scott Waller, who made Harkes a captain before the season, the first junior in Waller’s 13-year tenure to be a captain. “He’s always been one of the best skill players, and now he’s one of the best players and has the size.”
The first memories Harkes has of his father as a pro soccer player are on the tail end of his career, when he was playing for the Columbus Crew. Cindi said it was not until John’s induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005 that the kids truly began to understand their father’s legacy in the sport.
“Up until that point, it was, ‘This is our dad, what are you talking about?’ ” Cindi Harkes said. “They knew he played soccer, but I don’t think they realized the impact he had.”
John and Cindi Harkes have been careful to protect Ian from any outside pressures that may accompany his last name. The emphasis, John Harkes said, has always been to make sure Ian, who also plays for the D.C. United youth academy, has fun without the burden of expectation.
“That’s a concern for every dad or mom that has played at a high level in sports and is trying to raise a child,” said John Harkes, now a commentator for ESPN. “It’s in your thoughts how he’s going to be viewed or she’s going to be viewed, if you’re talking about a daughter. In a perfect world everybody will look at him for who he is.”
Ian, who was born in England when his father was playing overseas and holds dual citizenship, said his last name doesn’t bring any added pressure.
“It’s always been there,” Ian Harkes said. “ Some people view you different or are harder on you. I just take it as is. It’s a compliment sometimes, too.”
Harkes’s deep understanding of the game is evident in everything from his off-the-ball runs to subtle movements in the run of play. In the WCAC semifinals against Good Counsel on Wednesday, Harkes often settled into the right space two or three passes before he was to receive the ball. He rarely took more than three touches.
“He’s definitely stepped it up,” said Gonzaga midfielder-defender Stephen Wulff, a junior. “The size factor contributed, but he’s always had that smart play. He sees the game, he reads it well and now it’s starting to translate [into being] more productive offensively. It wasn’t showing as much before, but he’s always been a factor.”
Harkes’s goal and assist in the semifinal sparked a 3-0 win, putting the Eagles in their 12th consecutive WCAC championship (they have won seven titles).
And though this season has been as much about Ian Harkes separating himself as an individual, he has no problem if people still want to focus on his last name.
“I think it’s been a pretty good [season] about just making my own name,” he said. “But I don’t really care if it’s ‘That’s John Harkes’s son,’ and different stuff. I’m proud to be a Harkes.”