Senior Editor, Soccer America
''No-Brainer.'' That's how former U.S. international John Harkes describes his decision to leave the D.C. United Director of Youth Development post to take an assistant coaching position with Red Bull New York.
The specifics of his role under Head Coach Bruce Arena have yet to be finalized, yet he's looking forward to working with former D.C. United teammate Richie Williams, who has served as interim head coach following the dismissal of Mo Johnston, and probably ex-U.S. defender Jeff Agoos as well.
Harkes, Williams and Agoos all played under Arena at D.C. United and the University of Virginia.
''We're just hammering out the details and talking between [Red Bulls managing director] Marc De Grandpre and Bruce and myself and getting things sorted out,'' said Harkes, who has been in the D.C. front office since 2004. ''I thought, what a great environment to be in, and what a great challenge, to have a chance to work hard and be a part of something special moving forward with this club.
''They have a vision, they have a dream, and they want to better their situation. They have players with great ability. I'm just there to support Bruce and do my best.''
Harkes interviewed for the Rochester Rhinos head coaching job last year after working with Sigi Schmid and the U.S. under-20 team in the run-up to last summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup, which he says sparked a smoldering interest in making coaching his next full-time job.
In addition to his youth development duties at D.C. United, he's also been the team's TV color analyst and was lauded for his work on ESPN's World Cup telecasts.
''When I got the opportunity working with the U-20s with Sigi it was fantastic, I loved it,'' says Harkes. ''That kind of woke me up and told me, 'This is what I want to do.'
''I do love TV and hopefully it will always be there, but there's no better chance to get involved and, as they say, get your foot in the door in Major League Soccer than this situation, learning from Bruce. I'm looking forward to it, I really am.''
Harkes joins a growing list of former U.S. internationals stepping into the coaching ranks with MLS teams, as well as Tab Ramos, who has formed an academy in New Jersey, and Robin Fraser, who in addition to his own TV work on MLS telecasts and the World Cup is coaching director of the Arizona Futbol Club founded by another former U.S. international, defender Greg Vanney.
''You see a guy like Tab, who is gifted with the ball at his feet, but he had vision, too,'' says Harkes. ''Certain players have that, they see two steps ahead, three steps ahead, they know how the game and the rhythm is changing. For me, I had a great work rate, but I think I was able at least to understand the game itself and what was going on throughout it.
''Look, I don't know. I'm still learning, I'm learning a lot. I'm still young in the coaching ranks. I just hope to better myself and see what I can do.''
At D.C. United, Harkes oversees a development system that includes U-20, U-17, U-15 and U-13 teams. He and his wife, Cindy, run Team Harkes, a youth program affiliated with the Braddock Road (Virginia) Youth Club, and both coach their children as well.
In soccer, like many other sports, good players sometimes make bad coaches, since playing the game at a high level requires instincts and subtleties and strategies that aren't easily taught.
And some former great players, like ex-Liverpool star Steve Heighway, work at developing players in an academy rather than vying for harshly competitive, volatile club positions. Yet Peter Nowak and Frank Yallop have moved successfully into the top job.
In his TV work, Harkes has shown the essential powers of analysis and interpretation. Experience under Arena, melded with his reputation and knowledge as a player, can prime him to serve a vital role in the future of American soccer. Coaches can demand that players strive for new heights; the best ones help them get there.