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Jack Harrison's unconventional path back to the Premier League

New York City FC star Jack Harrison says he's hopeful of more chances to prove himself for England after his recent experience with the under-21s.

AT THE BASE of Mount Everett in Sheffield, Massachusetts, sits a quintessentially New England 400-acre boarding school seemingly ripped from a Donna Tartt novel. Greek-columned administration buildings covered in ivy; a 50,000 square-foot athletic facility boasting squash, basketball and volleyball courts, a dance studio and climbing wall; an ultramodern observatory; an eight-acre, two megawatt solar field that powers the grounds, all encircled by a tapestry of maples, which paint the horizon red-orange come fall.

Some might call the Berkshire School "all-American." After all, notable American alumni who have wandered the halls include a slew of Olympians, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient, a NASA scientist, a Guggenheim Fellow and the co-founder of the New York City Ballet.

Add to the list: 21-year-old Jack Harrison, a Bolton, England-raised left-footed winger who joined Manchester United's academy at 7 years old. By 14, he would leave the academy and England behind, trading them in for the Berkshire School. Harrison then blazed through NCAA competition and set MLS aflame. Tuesday, he was transferred to Manchester City (reportedly around $6 million, or £4.25 million) and loaned to Championship side Middlesbrough, thus completing one of the more unconventional pathways to professional English soccer in recent memory.

"When [my mother and I] made the decision to come, I'd always aspired to be a professional football player, I just wasn't sure how I was going to do it," Harrison says in an interview with ESPNFC.

Harrison, who also spent time in Liverpool's academy, wasn't anonymous among United's youth ranks. But among the pictures of teams that decked the academy's training center halls, he and his mother, Debbie, noted how many faces they didn't recognize. For every David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs or Marcus Rashford (a former teammate of Harrison), there are droves who vanish into the thicket of obscurity.

Of the roughly 12,500 kids in academies throughout England, it's estimated that less than 1 percent of them will play soccer professionally. Roughly 12 percent of English Premier League players are graduates of their club's academy; nearly 60 percent of Premier League players are from overseas. American colleges have long dangled athletic scholarships in front of talented international athletes parched for an alternate route. Around Harrison's 13th birthday, there was a trend emerging across the pond: Internationals were headed to American prep schools. If Harrison could embark on a new footballing path while receiving a quality education and get to America not as a 20 or 21-year-old but as a newly minted teenager? Well, that would be something.

It was a novel concept, and one that would contradict the notion that the path to soccer perfection lies outside the United States. Elite Americans leave in search of better soccer. But Debbie wouldn't let her boy be part of that less-than-1 percent.

Debbie, a single mother, began reaching out to schools, toting progress reports from Harrison's United youth academy brass and not much else. (United declined to provide tape from Harrison's time there.) She made contact with Berkshire's boys soccer coach, Jon Moodey, who wanted to take a chance on Harrison despite not seeing him play. Debbie couldn't afford to travel with Harrison on his visit. At 14, he flew to Massachusetts alone, his first trip across the Atlantic.

"She just said, 'Go by yourself, and if you like it, you can stay out there. If you don't, you can come back and we can figure something out,'" Harrison says.

Harrison loved the school and Moodey's family, who hosted him for his visit, and agreed to enroll. Harrison soon took up mountain biking and squash. Typical of Harrisonian lore, he emerged elite: a New England Prep School Athletic Council title in squash and a course record on a treacherous local mountain biking path.

Justin Donawa, a three-time All-Ivy League and Bermudian national team midfielder -- and Harrison's roommate for three years at Berkshire -- wasn't surprised.

"Ever since I've known Jack," Donawa says, "he's been driven to give his all, no matter the situation. By the end of his first [mountain biking] season, he was winning races. He was able to excel at something he'd never done before because he was driven, competitive and determined to do his best."

When Harrison arrived on campus in the fall of 2011, he was taken aback by the talent.

"The level of football really surprised me; it was a lot better than what I thought it would be," he said.

Those at the school, too, were surprised -- by his physique. Harrison checked in at about 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds.

"He was small in stature, like [me]," Donawa says. "A bit chubbier than the player you [saw] wreaking havoc in MLS."

Now, Harrison is 5-foot-9 and has added nearly 20 pounds of muscle. But when he first came over, in the traditional Berkshire forest greens, he resembled a string bean.

"Kinda small. He was young, and he looked it," Sylvia Gappa, who teaches math and psychology at Berkshire, says. "But he instantly integrated into this community and the work that needed to be done."

Harrison got acclimated so quickly that he soon became a student ambassador and campus tour guide.

"He just had a way of making everyone feel at ease," says Moodey, who has since left the Berkshire School to start a student-athlete recruitment agency.

By May 2015, Jack had won three consecutive NEPSAC Class A titles, racked up 44 goals and 65 assists, and was named the Gatorade Male Soccer Player of the Year.

"This pathway Jack took is interesting. 'Wait, I can be a pro and back myself up with an amazing education? Why not do this?'" Moodey says. "It's certainly a lot more appealing than rolling the dice on lingering around in an oversaturated European club."

The award indicated how successful Harrison could be when he sets his mind to something, but it also put the world on notice.

"You'll see more kids like Jack come overseas earlier in their career and utilize MLS as a starter league," Remy Cherin, Harrison's agent says. "I think it's kind of a no-brainer. From what I've heard, when Jack is back home? A lot of kids are intrigued by how he got here."

That the Harrisons saw America as a bourgeoning hot spot for international soccer talent was well-founded: Harrison is one of only four internationals to have won the Gatorade Male Soccer Player of the Year in its 32-year history.

All four have come since 2012.

In 2015, Harrison broke the Wake Forest records for points (27) and assists (11) in a season by a freshman, which had stood for three decades.

THE PATHWAY TO professional soccer as an American is murky. The MLS academy system is just starting to churn out quality Homegrown players. DeAndre Yedlin was the first true Homegrown star -- from the Seattle Sounders academy to the University of Akron to MLS. But, as American stars in or on the cusp of their prime are wont to do, Yedlin quickly jumped to Europe, first with Tottenham, now with Newcastle.

Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent, Weston McKennie, Emerson Hyndman and Jonathan Klinsmann -- Americans 21 or younger playing abroad -- have shown that the message to those who spent the brunt of their youth stateside is: If you can, go forth and prosper -- elsewhere.

In the decade-plus since the advent of the MLS' Designated Player Rule, the league has seen all-time greats such as Beckham, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba come to the U.S. for, essentially, an exorbitant victory lap in the name of developing American soccer. Among criticisms of MLS, stars being past their prime has long been a common refrain.

So when English clubs reached out to Harrison after his stellar high school career, he couldn't have been blamed for entertaining offers.

"He had been playing in an IMG showcase," Cherin recalls. "[Debbie] said, 'We're getting some interest back home. What do you think we should do?' I said, 'Look, if he does as well as I think he can, he'll probably be the best player in college soccer in a few months.'"

Harrison obliterated Division I competition in his lone season at Wake Forest, where he set a Demon Deacon freshman record for points in a season. He was a first-team NSCAA All-American and a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy.

"Unfortunately, I don't think we ever thought Jack would be a four-year guy," says Bobby Muuss, Wake Forest head coach. "Midway through the season, I thought maybe we'd be lucky to keep him for three. When he won ACC [Freshman] and [Offensive] Player of the Year, I think it became a little more evident."

Harrison doesn't regret not making the jump.

"After the season, I could've gone on trial in Europe -- there was a couple of teams interested," he says. "But being injured and already having an offer from MLS on the table, MLS was the better option, rather than risk a trial and possibly get injured further."

The Chicago Fire selected Harrison first overall in the 2016 SuperDraft. NYCFC traded for the Brit that day, making him the first No. 1 pick to be traded the day he was drafted.

Another reason he stayed in America? Major League Soccer offers online classes through Southern New Hampshire University for current and retired players.

"The main reason why I came out here was to gain a good education, possibly a degree from a very good college, so that if anything happened in football, that I could fall back on that," Harrison says.

Despite the aforementioned injury, a stress fracture in his pubic bone that would sideline him for the combine and beginning of the season, the Chicago Fire selected Harrison first overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, and NYCFC immediately traded for him. In his first MLS start, in June 2016, Harrison scored; he tallied 14 goals and 13 assists in his two seasons, finishing third in the 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year voting. He was named second and third in MLS' 2016 and 2017 "24 Under 24" lists, respectively.

From 2016 to 2017, of all MLS players who played 55 games or less, only one had more successful 1v1s than Harrison. Among midfielders (minimum 30 shots on goal from 2016 to 2017), Harrison had the fourth-best conversion rate. Which is to say he wields the speed and skill to beat defenders on the flank and competency to finish, an exceedingly rare combination.

At a September match, one NYCFC executive called Harrison "the face of the franchise." When prompted about two World Cup winners, 2016 MLS MVP David Villa and now-retired Pirlo, the executive reiterated: "Villa is the star, Harrison is the future. It's a shame..."

Shame?

"Well, it's only a matter of time," the forlorn executive opined. "We know he's going to leave. Could be at the end of the season, could be in a year or two..."

Harrison, the face of the franchise, at once blossoming and slipping through the club's fingers.

A week later, Harrison would receive life-changing news: a U21 English national team call-up. Despite the insinuation that the soccer powers paid no attention to MLS, Aidy Boothroyd, the manager of the U21 squad, spoke to the contrary.

"It shows you the pathway has changed or is changing," Boothroyd told Sky Sports. "There's no hard or fast route [for call-ups]. Some go abroad and play, and now we have someone who goes away, ends up playing for New York City and does really well."

But what Harrison may have loved most about his first appearance for the squad that won the U20 World Cup in 2017?

"Some of my family were at the game and were able to watch me in an England shirt," he says. "That was a great honor."

Harrison made his England U21 debut on Oct. 6. 'Jack has really opened people's eyes to this pathway,' says Jon Moodey, Harrison's high school coach. 'Because of his personality, his success -- he's the perfect story. There are others behind him now who see this. It's tangible, it's real, it can happen.'

BARELY 72 HOURS PASSED after the news of his U21 call-up before the English media reported a Manchester United-Manchester City bidding war over Harrison.

"I don't like to think about that too much. I just leave all that stuff to my agent," Harrison said following the news. "I tell him not to tell me, and he doesn't. For now, I'm focused on being [here at NYCFC]. That's where my head's at."

In early November, after securing a first-round bye, NYCFC lost to Columbus in the conference semifinals. Days later, Sports Illustrated reported that Everton, Leicester City, and Brighton & Hove Albion would chase after Harrison when the transfer window opened in January.

"He's on [an English] national team, so you're gonna get calls," Cherin said. "In New York, it's been a great move for him because he's one of the first three people into the starting 11 each week. But eventually, if he has ambitions, they're supposed to play in Europe. That's gotta be the idea."

At season's end, NYCFC freshly eliminated, Harrison spent Christmas, as he always does, at home with family. Afterward, he jetted off to Dubai to shoot a commercial. In somewhat typical fashion for a 20-something, he chronicled his holiday on Instagram, a refreshing change of pace for an exceptionally grounded young man. One post was a sunglasses-clad Harrison at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The location read, "At The Top." The irony was writ large: It must have felt that way in many respects.

And now it was time to go home.

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