CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Walt Chyzowych, who spent six years as coach of the U.S. national soccer team, says it's tougher to impress him than to say his name five times fast. But last month at Scott Stadium, the Wake Forest coach was plenty impressed with John Harkes.
Harkes, Virginia's all-America junior midfielder, had put on a playmaking show against the Demon Deacons.
It wasn't Harkes' two goals that most impressed Chyzowych. It wasn't his deft one-touch passing when double-teamed, or even his intense defense against Greg Nicholson, a former Olympic team member.
Instead, Chyzowych's postgame praise stemmed from a bit of theatrics by Harkes, a dive he took after a glancing elbow from the Demon Deacons' Geraint Davies.
"You just don't see that with American players," Chyzowych said. "That gamesmanship, that flair -- a lot of American players have that skill but they're far too mechanical. That dive he took was just beautiful.
"It just shows that the maturation process has come the full cycle with John Harkes. He used to be just a kid running around out there. Now, he's always thinking, always creating. He knows what he's doing out there."
Harkes' talent long has been evident -- the Kearney, N.J., native was Parade magazine's high school player of the year his senior season. At times, however, the desire to put that talent to use seems to have been absent.
"With John, there's never been a doubt about whether he has the ability to be a dominant player," Virginia Coach Bruce Arena said. "It's simply been a matter of John growing up a little to put that ability to use.
"For two years, he's been happy to let other guys on the team be the leaders. Now, with those guys gone and the improvement he's made in his game, he's the leader."
In the Cavaliers' first four games, he scored six of the team's seven goals, including two game-winners.
"I had no idea I'd be scoring this much," Harkes said. "I'm playing better than I ever have, but I think it's mostly because my role has changed so much. I have to score now."
Collegiate success is just the surface of Harkes' resume. As the youngest member of the U.S. national team this summer, he took over a starting midfield spot on a squad that stands a good chance of being just the third U.S. team since 1960 to qualify for the Olympics.
"Normally, I wouldn't give such a large role to such a young player, but he's that good," said Lothar Osiandar, coach of the U.S. team. "His skill level hasn't yet reached the level of the real good international players, but he was a workhorse at midfield. I just wish I had him with me now."
To Osiandar's dismay, Harkes and Clemson's Bruce Murray decided to shelve the Olympic qualifying matches until May in favor of the college season. Arena calls Harkes an "overwhelming candidate" for national player of the year honors.
Harkes readily admits his concentration on the field has wavered at times because of the relative ease with which he can dribble around college opponents. There are few players out there to force him to raise his game. But in Harkes' mind, there's still incentive.
"Now that everyone has told me that I should get it, I want to be player of the year," he said. "And at least once before I leave here, I want to win the national championship.
"We've had the talent in the past to do it and we've just been unlucky. I still have plenty to accomplish."