Ian Harkes’ reputation precedes him. As the D.C. United rookie took the field Monday for his first practice as a full-fledged professional, goalkeeper Bill Hamid played up the hype.
“There,” he said, “is the Heisman guy.”
An awkward silence ensued. While Harkes remained mum, a teammate interjected: Hamid had playfully mixed up the trophy given to college soccer’s top player with the famed football honor.
Finally, Harkes muttered a correction: “It’s Hermann.”
“And he put his head down,” Hamid recalled. “He has a good humbleness about him.”
United announced the signing of Harkes on Monday, two weeks after the 21-year-old midfielder capped a prolific four-year career at Wake Forest by claiming the Hermann Trophy.
The son of United legend John Harkes, Ian was allowed to circumvent the MLS draft and directly sign with United as a “homegrown player” after representing the club’s youth academy.
Although Harkes explored opportunities in England — where he was born before growing up in Fairfax — the appeal of playing for the hometown team his father captained to MLS Cup titles in 1996 and 1997 was too tempting.
“It was kind of a whirlwind at the end trying to figure out what the next steps were,” Harkes said. “I knew D.C. was the right decision all along.”
Just 3 years old when John Harkes was traded by United in 1999, Ian doesn’t remember much of his father’s time with the club. But he does recall joining his family on the RFK Stadium field for his father’s send-off game, an exhibition between United and English club Tottenham in May 2003.
A lifelong United fan, Harkes joined the team’s academy in 2009 and went on to captain the Under-16 and U-18 squads while also playing for Gonzaga College High School in the District.
“I’m a romantic, as you know, with this club, and I love the story behind it,” said coach Ben Olsen, who played with John Harkes at United. “Even more important than that, he’s a great player. He is a fantastic soccer player, and I think this is a very good spot for him to grow over the next couple of years.
“Then we’ll see. He has all the tools and skill set to have success at the MLS level and beyond.”
Harkes sees himself as a two-way central midfielder, though Olsen noted the rookie also could play as the defensive midfielder in United’s 4-1-4-1 formation. A calming presence on the ball, Harkes recorded five goals and four assists while leading Wake Forest to the College Cup final in December.
“He’s good with the ball at his feet, he’s good moving into space, he’s evasive,” said United defender Jalen Robinson, Harkes’ teammate at Wake Forest. “You just can’t get it off his feet. He can keep possession, and that’s what this team needs — someone who can keep the ball moving.”
Olsen added: “I think he’s going to fight for playing time. I can’t say he’s going to be a starter for this team, but I’ve seen enough of him that I know he’s going to push guys. He’s competitive enough to want to be on the field on the weekend.”
Short term, Olsen expects Harkes to compete for a starting spot in United’s 2017 MLS opener against Sporting Kansas City on March 4 at RFK Stadium. Harkes will look to make his preseason debut Wednesday, when the club faces the U.S. Under-17 national team in Bradenton, Florida.
Long term, however, he is seen as a potential centerpiece for a team strengthening its core ahead of the scheduled opening of a soccer-specific stadium in 2018.
Harkes’ ceiling is high. But, as Hamid found out Monday, he has a knack for staying grounded.
“You always want to play right away and get in, but I know realistically there are a lot of strong midfielders on this team,” Harkes said. “So I’m just looking to help the group as much as possible in training and hopefully that will translate into games.”