For many players, 2020 has been challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Games are never guaranteed to be played, players are getting sick, and leagues have shut down for lengthy stretches.
There are a few players, however, that have risen to the occasion and are having banner years despite the chaos around them. Among American players in Europe, Haji Wright is having a year to remember.
Sure, some players like Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie have had great years, but most people have assumed they were already good. For Wright, however, 2020 has seen him emerge from a bleak situation where it was unclear if he would ever have a viable professional career. Now, many players struggle and fade but Wright, along with Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams, was one of the key players on the 2015 U.S. U-17 World Cup team. The hype for Wright of a player seemed legitimate as his 27 goals over 34 games for the U-17 team caught the attention of a lot of people.
Before long, he moved to Germany with Schalke in 2016 and immediately started scoring for the club’s U-19 team – even notching a brace in his debut.
Starting in 2017, however, Wright entered into a very difficult period in his career. U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos showed no interest in Wright during that cycle. Stuck in the youth levels at Schalke at 2017-18, Wright went on a loan to Sandhausen in the 2.Bundesliga where he started off well but then struggled for playing time – scoring just once over 587 minutes that season. The following year he trialed with Union Berlin but could not secure a move.
Wright remained with Schalke in 2018-19 and even earned a 194 Bundesliga minutes with the first team during a period when it was stuck in an injury crisis (scoring a goal when he redirected a McKennie header). Once the first-choice players returned, however, Wright was no longer making the bench for the first team.
While that was difficult, the toughest period for Wright came in 2019-20 when he moved on a free transfer to VVV-Venlo in the Netherlands -- with Schalke rumored to pick up a percentage of his salary to ensure Wright was paid the high Eredivisie minimum salary for non-EU citizens. But over 22 appearances across 1,408 minutes, Wright failed to score and picked up just a single assist in the normally offensive-oriented Dutch top flight. VVV-Venlo held a contract option for a second year for Wright but declined -- thereby making the California native a free agent.
While he had minimal options over the summer, Wright, now 22, was able to secure a deal with SonderjyskE – one of the smaller clubs in the Danish Superliga. Given Wright’s rocky path since 2017, few would have expected the turnaround that ensued.
In SonderjyskE's season-opening game, Wright came off the bench in the 63rd minute and scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over defending champion FC Midtjylland. In the third game, he entered a match against Aalborg BK around the hour mark with the score 1-1. Wright ended up scoring two goals in a 3-1 win.
Now eight games into the season, Wright is the Superliga’s leading scorer with six goals and an assist – but having played just 403 minutes. Even more impressive is that largely due to Wright’s efforts, SonderjyskE sits atop the Superliga table with 17 points -- one better that Midtjylland. Recently, SonderjyskE extended Wright’s contract and he is now signed through the 2023 Superliga season. He was named the Superliga’s Player of the Month for October.
SonderjyskE clearly now sees enormous potential and growth in Wright that it did not even realize.
"I am very satisfied with his work defensively,” Sonderjyske coach Glen Riddersholm said after a 3-0 win over Horsens on Nov. 8. “We saw something from him today that we have not seen before. If you ask me how much we have seen from him yet, then I would say 65 percent."
On Sunday, Sonderjyske will visit OB in Odense. OB fields another surprising American in Emmanuel Sabbi, who has three goals and an assist playing on the wing. Unfortunately, Wright is doubtful due to a muscular injury which may keep him out into December
Despite that, Wright remains one for American fans to follow in the months ahead on three impressive fronts.
One, for the player he is right now, being the leading scorer in Denmark for the current leaders. Two, for the player he can become. He is now one that can’t be written off anymore. Third, as yet another example of why fans should not write off young players that take years to find themselves – development can be a very different path and Wright’s ability to persevere through a long and rough road is admirable.
On the international stage, an even more uphill climb is needed for Wright. Even as he remains eligible for the U.S. U-23 Olympic team in 2021, his competition at center forward within the pools for both the U.S. team and the U-23 team is only getting tougher. Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto, both 20, each scored two goals for the U.S. team in the 6-2 win over Panama on Monday. Josh Sargent, also 20, is a regular starter in the Bundesliga. On the domestic front, a trio of U-23-eligible forwards are all coming off great seasons. Daryl Dike, 20, had eight goals and four assists for Orlando City. Ayo Akinola, 20, had nine goals for Toronto FC. Jeremy Ebobisse, 23, had eight goals and two assists for Portland.
Wright is clearly back on track with his career at the club level but when considering how far he has come in 2020 and where he was, it would be a mistake counting him out on the international stage as well.
“I am happy but I am definitely not satisfied,” Wright said after a win over Randers last month. “I think I can score a lot more. It's a long season and I want to continue to put them in.”