Ian Harkes got a small taste of professional soccer abroad in 2018-19. Now, with half of a season under his belt, the former D.C. United midfielder is eager to make a major leap in his second season across the pond.
Now with Scottish Championship side Dundee United, Harkes is aiming to help the club earn automatic promotion into the Premiership. It’s been four seasons since the club last played in the top-flight, losing to St. Mirren last season in the promotion/relegation final over two legs. The jump from MLS to Scotland was one that Harkes didn’t fully expect right away, but he’s taken it in stride since.
“It was a really good challenge for me, I really needed to get games and look for new opportunities,” Harkes told SBI. “Dundee United presented itself. The Scottish Championship is a tough league because everybody is fighting for a chance to get up. It’s very physical and more direct, it challenged me in different ways on the field.
“We were pushing for promotion to the Premiership and we made it to the playoff final before unfortunately falling just short. Losing definitely hurt, but it showed us that we have the talent to get to the Premiership. Coming over here I was picking up and learning as I went, but I understand how much history that Dundee United has a club. They are a team that definitely should be in the Premiership.”
“We’re going to do everything possible to win the league outright so we can avoid the playoffs. It’s four games in a span of two weeks so it a grueling stretch at the end of the season.”
Harkes, the 2017 MAC Hermann Award winner, started off strong with D.C. United in his debut season. He totaled 27 appearances in all competitions for Ben Olsen’s side, scoring three goals. However, Harkes struggled to touch the field in 2018, falling behind Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse in the midfield pecking order.
After being released by the team in Dec. 2018, Harkes had a short waiting period before joining Dundee United in January. Under manager Robbie Neilson, Harkes made 20 appearances in all competitions and got valuable experience in his first competitive season abroad. Although the team fell in the playoff final, Harkes got better individually, learning about the league and getting into better shape for the long run.
“It definitely was a bit of a challenge fitness wise,” Harkes said. “I definitely had to get my fitness levels better when I got here because sometimes you are playing multiple games in a week span. It helped though because I got tossed right into the thick of things so I was finishing matches with more distance covered than the prior matches.”
“Physically it challenges you because a lot of games are back and forth, so a lot of games I was covering a lot of area and going box-to-box. You get closed down with the ball a lot quicker so it helps to improve with every match. At D.C., I sat deep and maybe sometimes sat back too much so now I’ve been able to move forward and cover more ground. I think if I end this season with some goals and helping set up my teammates in front of goal then it will be a big help to our club.”
Despite spending several years playing in the U.S., not only with D.C. United, but also in college with Wake Forest University, Harkes didn’t need to do much investigating on the club he was joining. His grandfather Jim, was a supporter of Dundee United as a child, and lived behind the club’s stadium, Tannadice Park.
The opportunity for Ian to not only grow as a professional athlete, but play for the club his grandfather supports surely is a bonus for him. It also provides the opportunity for Ian to be a part of the Dundee Derby for the first time this season after Dundee was relegated from the Premiership last Spring.
“My grandfather was born in Dundee and my grandmother was born in Paisley, but I never knew he was truly a fan of the club,” Harkes said. “He grew up behind the stadium where we play, so it’s pretty surreal to play for the club knowing he is a huge fan of. My family is really excited for me and to see me play again this season. The whole family is trying to get over and show their support.”
“It’s also been really exciting to be here in a city that has two big teams in it. It’s something I am excited for this season after Dundee got relegated last season, so we will have four derbies against them over the span of this season. It’s going to be fun to be a part of that, our stadiums are literally down the street from one another. The atmosphere and passion from the fans will be amazing to witness firsthand.”
After appearing in the past for the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team, Harkes earned his lone trip to a senior USMNNT camp in Jan. 2018. However, the midfielder did not dress in a scoreless draw against Bosnia & Herzegovina and has yet to find his way back to the team now under new head coach, Gregg Berhalter.
Now 24-years-old, Harkes may find it tougher to return to the USMNT with several younger players leading the way like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams. Also with his grandparents’ Scottish heritage, Harkes won’t rule out the possibility of a move to the Scottish National Team if it’s something that becomes suitable.
“It was a great experience to have that first National Team camp and, I tried to do the best I could at it,” Harkes said. “I haven’t heard from Gregg and his staff yet, but I’m hoping that if I can continue to play at a high level that maybe down the future I can get back in there. They have a lot of good players so it’s always going to be tough. It’s always a dream of mine to represent the U.S., but the Scottish National Team is also a possibility with my heritage too.”
Dundee United opens the 2019-20 Scottish Championship season on Aug. 3rd against Inverness Caledonian Thistle after already having several positive tune-up matches under their belt. They’ve played three friendlies and faced four opponents in Scotland’s League Cup, including a penalty shootout loss to Hearts.
Knowing that the new 36-match season is right around the corner, Harkes and Dundee United will want to get out of the gate strong. Two of their opening four matches are against sides who finished just under them in last season’s standings, while Aug. 30th is the first Dundee Derby of the year. A positive start though would have both Harkes and the club happy heading into September and beyond.
“We’re looking good so far, we had to hit the ground running right away since we only had about three weeks off before training camp started up,” Harkes said. “We had to get back in especially since we started the League Cup group stage.”
“We’ve played some tough competition in Hearts who are in the Premiership, but also a pair of teams in lower leagues who provided good tests. We have a lot of pieces that are very good coming back from last season’s team and we have a few arrivals. We’re going to be pushing for winning the league which is our main goal.”