While Jack Harrison watched his new team at Middlesbrough play to a disappointing home draw with Sheffield Wednesday earlier this week, his former club at New York City FC continued pre-season preparations without their valuable cog from a season ago.
Following more than two weeks of speculation, Harrison landed in Manchester on Tuesday to sign a deal with NYCFC’s sister club, Manchester City FC. The Premier League leaders immediately loaned the 20-year old winger to the Championship side in the north-east of England – another stride in Harrison’s dream of playing in the top tier of England.
For NYCFC and Major League Soccer, this was good business. The reported $6 million transfer fee places the Bronx franchise in a threshold whereby the club secures two-thirds of the transfer total. The sporting side, however, is another matter.
While NYCFC may have added quality personnel who can ably replace Harrison, there are no assurances that any one of them can match the productivity of the top pick in the 2016 MLS Draft. Frank Lampard, who had taken Harrison under his wing, scored 12 goals for NYCFC in 2016. Following his retirement at season’s end the club was concerned how those goals, acting as a vital compliment to league MVP David Villa, could be replaced. In his sophomore season, Harrison responded with 10 goals plus six assists to support Villa’s team leading output of 22 and nine. A closer look at the timely nature of Harrison’s production reveals six game-winning tallies out of the club record 16 victories. Villa struck the decisive finish in only three matches.
Villa has been remarkable since signing with expansion NYCFC as its first Designated Player. His 63 goals top MLS over a three-year span. However, Villa turned 36 in December and at some juncture his productivity is going to wane.
“I don’t go into the season thinking that we have to protect David because of his age,” said head coach, Patrick Vieira. “I’m not thinking that at all. His performance will dictate how many games he’s going to play and if he can play all the games the same way he did last year, I will take that.”
Villa missed three of 34 regular season matches due to a leg injury sustained on an international break with Spain.
“He’s been really good in pre-season,” said Vieira. “He wants to play every day. That is his strength.”
However, Villa sat out the team’s first pre-season scrimmage with an undisclosed injury. With Harrison’s departure and perhaps a more fragile Villa, there are talented candidates to step to the forefront albeit unproven as double-digit goal scorers in MLS.
20-year old Designated Player Jesus Medina was impressive in the 5-2 thumping of Jacksonville University in the first of six pre-season matches. The Paraguayan international made his professional debut at 15 and is expected to provide attacking support in wide positions, as a No. 10 or a false nine. Medina, who watched at home as Villa scored the game winning goal against Paraguay in the 2010 World Cup, may well end up in Harrison’s familiar spot on the right flank.
Striker Joe Inge Berget scored 10 times to lead Sweden’s top tier champions Malmo FF in 2017. The Norwegian international was acquired by NYCFC on January 19 but has yet to arrive for pre-season in Jacksonville as he sorts out his visa. Vieira has stated that Berget can also play on the wing.
Rodney Wallace returns for his second season with the Boys in Blue and while an important figure in the starting XI, his production faded considerably during the course of the season and he concluded the year with five goals. The 2017 MLS Combine MVP, Jonathan Lewis, showed flashes of brilliance but the inconsistencies of a typical rookie out of college. He appeared in only 10 matches with two scores.
15-year old NYCFC Academy product, Gio Reyna, started on the front line against Jacksonville and speculation persists that the son of the Sporting Director (Claudio Reyna) may sign as the club’s second Homegrown player. Reyna is also considering a move to Europe.
“For a kid of 15 he’s got this physical presence and his game understanding is really good,” said Vieira. “He can score goals and he understands the demands of the game. He showed some really good stuff.”
Reyna will not turn 16 until the MLS playoffs are underway. If NYCFC is fortunate enough to advance to the post-season for a third consecutive year, their fate may rest with those who emerge as consistent goal scorers.
For Harrison, his debut at the Riverside could be on Feb. 10 as Middlesbrough fights for promotion to the Premiership. It’s the same day his former teammates will continue to sort out the key contributors to their attack in an exhibition at the Stub Hub Center against the L.A. Galaxy.