FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In some ways, Ian Harkes has not separated himself from his famous father.
He, too, starred at an elite ACC program. He, too, is a midfielder. Before signing a homegrown contract this winter with D.C. United, the team John Harkes captained at MLS’s birth 21 years ago, Ian explored opportunity at Derby County, his dad’s second English employer.
But as rookie reticence gives way to swelling self-confidence this spring, the younger Harkes is carving a clear identity.
The last name’s the same; the second-generation player is an original.
Saturday marked his sixth consecutive start since he watched the opener from the bench. With six ailing regulars, including playmaker Luciano Acosta, watching from home or the sideline, Harkes was at the heart of United’s attack during a 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution (which happened to be his father’s second MLS team).
His body language exuded growing conviction, as if, after almost two months deferring to his experienced colleagues, he was ready to seize initiative despite the absence of professional experience. Twice in the first half, he almost scored: a swerving bid from 20 yards that kissed the left post and a header that banged off the crossbar.
“He continues to grow and he continues to prove he belongs,” said Coach Ben Olsen, who, as a teammate of John Harkes in 1998, has known Ian since he was a child. “Got a little closer to scoring. Maybe next week, one will hit the net.”
The 2016 Hermann Trophy winner for College Cup finalist Wake Forest figured to play a greater part than most D.C. prospects.
Olsen had paired him with Acosta in an advanced central midfield position, a role that required Harkes, 22, to forge chemistry with the Argentine while also putting in defensive work. On Saturday, with a sore ankle keeping Acosta off Gillette Stadium’s artificial turf until the 77th minute, Harkes conducted the attack while Marcelo Sarvas and Jared Jeffrey provided support toiling in the trenches.
“I’m a little more comfortable,” Harkes, a Fairfax resident and Gonzaga High graduate, said ahead of the northern trip. “Hopefully comfort doesn’t become complacency, because I have so much to learn and so much to add to my game. Each week I’m going to try to keep growing.”
Also, as he adapts from the simplicity of college soccer to the unforgiving demands of pro soccer, Harkes is beginning to show greater enterprise. At first, he seemed apprehensive among hardened teammates, most notably Acosta, a transplant from Argentina’s famous Boca Juniors.
“You want to learn from them and see what they do,” he said. “It’s hard to compose yourself completely, but in midfield, you have to be a driving force, so I am going to have to keep stepping up. Getting shots off and being a little more dangerous in the final third is something I need to add. I’ll have to keep looking for it.”
Although Ian is coming into his own, the son is not altogether different from the father.
“He’s done a pretty good job hiding his personality playing second fiddle and understanding he’s a rookie,” Olsen said. “But he’s got a little of his dad in him — the competitiveness and pride. I see that slowly coming in, and that’s a very good thing.”
A reunion of sorts played out the previous weekend at Red Bull Arena, which sits three miles from the Harkes family homestead in Kearny, N.J. There, Ian’s grandparents settled after emigrating from Scotland, and John learned the game in the ethnic enclave with, among others, future World Cup teammates Tony Meola and Tab Ramos.
More than 100 family and friends watched Ian log 90 minutes in a 2-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls.
“All of the Jersey guys,” Ian said, laughing. “My aunt got her hands on a lot of tickets.”
While the team bused home, Harkes stayed behind for Easter. He then headed back to Washington to continue his soccer education — and to build stamina. College seasons last three months, MLS’s eight.
Olsen believes Harkes has the proper mental strength and physical traits, not unlike former D.C. defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen, who, the coach joked, “hit a rookie wall for about two hours.
“Ian has that type of personality. I think he will stay in it and understand how much focus it takes to be a week-in and week-out pro.”