Jack Harrison's path to Premier League: From U.S. high school soccer to life at Leeds under Jesse Marsch

The gallery of academy team photos was mounted on a wall at Manchester United's training facility. Debbie Harrison, a single mother working full time as a legal assistant, couldn't get to Carrington to watch her 12-year-old compete as often as most other parents. But whenever she did, she couldn't help noticing those former youth players staring out portentously from the past.

Just appearing in one of the photos meant you were in the upper echelon of all the schoolboy footballers in England. You couldn't miss the young David Beckham. Or Ryan Giggs, the Nevilles and the rest of that fabled class of 1992. Jonny Evans, Danny Higginbotham -- Debbie knew those names, too.

But who were the others? Many must have been as good as -- or better than -- her Jack when they were his age. They were on the fast track to stardom at perhaps the most famous football club in the world.

And now? Where had they gone?

Jack Harrison came to Manchester United when he was seven years old. He was a tiny bit of a boy, but he'd been playing against older competition at Bolton Wanderers, his hometown club, since he could toddle. The United coaches assured Debbie that he'd fit in fine. He was quiet, universally liked and a magician with the ball. When he was eight or nine, his coaches asked him for an honest assessment of where he ranked in his age group. He told them what he felt to be true. "Top five," he answered firmly.

And among the top five? "Well, No. 1, actually," he said.

Three years after Jack was born, Debbie had split from his father. They were on good enough terms now that he had tamed his drinking, but he had a new family to care for. Debbie struggled to make ends meet. All day and into the night, she worked as hard as anyone else at her law firm. "You're the one who should be the lawyer," they told her. But she had no degree, and no time to go back and get one. "I hadn't finished school," she says. "I didn't want Jack to fall into that same trap."

Late at night, with Jack tucked into bed, she combed the internet. She'd been told that the top American preparatory schools awarded scholarships, if an athlete was good enough and the need was there. He could play and get an education at the same time. If football didn't work out as his profession, Jack could use it to earn a college degree. Maybe he'd become the lawyer.

When she first mentioned America, Jack wouldn't hear of it. Every 12-year-old who ever kicked a football yearned to get into an academy like Manchester United's. Why would he leave?

So she took him to the photos. All those ambitious young boys in Manchester United red, on the cusp of careers as professional footballers, staring confidently at the camera. Their hairstyles evolved over the years, but any of them could have been Jack Harrison.

"I just want to know," Debbie said, "do you recognize anyone on that team? Or that one?" Of all these theoretical stars of the future who'd passed through Carrington over the years, she asked her son, how many had he actually heard of?

The answer, Jack admitted, was almost none.

These days, Jack Harrison starts on the left wing for Leeds United in the Premier League. Only two players have appeared in more games for the club this season. Only one has scored more than his seven goals. He dates a Costa Rican swimsuit model. He drives a Bentley, and he has a solid grounding in neuroscience in case his football career falls through.

Leeds and Manchester are barely an hour apart, but what happened for Harrison between leaving one and arriving at the other is unique in world-class football. Unlike everyone else in Europe's five major leagues, Harrison played college soccer in America, and he left a position as a rising star at one of England's top youth academies to do it.

"I was shocked," says Stuart Leicester, who coached Harrison at Carrington. Leicester has worked in Manchester United's youth set-up for nearly two decades. In that time, he's aware of three players who were removed by their parents, as opposed to not invited back. One was an 11-year-old who clearly wasn't going to play professionally. Another left to concentrate on tennis. "The third," he says, "was Jack Harrison."

Would Harrison have reached the Premier League if he had stayed in Manchester? That answer is unknowable, of course, but what seems clear is that attending prep school and college in America changed him, as a player and as a person. "A lot of people may have seen it as a step back," says Brian Marwood, the managing director of global football for the City Football Group, which drafted Harrison for its NYCFC club and then signed him again two years later for Manchester City. "But these pathways are not always linear."

Perhaps that singular pathway is what made Harrison such a curious player. In the four years since he returned to England in 2018, he has scored just 25 goals. "Which is a problem," he says now, "because for a winger, goals matter."

And yet, he's being coveted by some of England's biggest clubs for an off-season move. Those privileged to see him in action on a weekday morning discover an entirely different player. "He sometimes struggles to show in a game what he shows in training," says Patrick Bamford, a striker at Leeds. "When you do see bits of it, you see that he's got the capability. So it's not a skill thing, it's a mental thing."

Is it coincidence that after nearly two years in the Premier League, Harrison is playing his best football yet under an American manager? Because he spent six years in America, Harrison says he considers himself "almost an American." Jesse Marsch, who replaced Marcelo Bielsa as the Leeds manager at the end of February, is only the second American manager in Premier League history, following Bob Bradley's truncated tenure at Swansea City in 2016.

Since Marsch's arrival, Harrison has scored three goals in nine games. Where Bielsa would bark out criticisms with impatience, Marsch sits down with his players and has discussions. It isn't quite Ted Lasso, but it's close. "The hard approach wasn't right for Jack," Bamford says. "He's not the kind of player you can scream at on the pitch. He's very much a confidence player. When things are going well for him, as they are now, that's when you really see him shine."

It took two years for Debbie Harrison to find a suitable situation for Jack in America. Eventually, she came across Berkshire School, some two hours west of Boston. She started applying online. Then she noticed the scholarship guidelines and gave up. "Even if they gave us the full amount," she recalls thinking, "I still couldn't afford it."

In the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, Jon Moodey came across the incomplete application. The school's soccer coach, his eyes widened when he saw Jack's experience. He called Debbie to inquire. "He must have been playing a pretty decent level of football to have been at the Manchester United academy," Moodey said.

"He's still there," Debbie told him.

"He's still there?" Even Moodey didn't get it. "Why on Earth are you sending him here?"

Moodey assured her that finances wouldn't be a problem, but Jack did need to get admitted. The process included academic tests in London and an interview over Skype. The interview was meant to last half an hour. Two hours in, they were making plans for Jack's visit.

Debbie couldn't afford the airfare to Boston, so she put Jack on a plane alone. From the beginning, he was like a fish in water. "Mum," he whispered when he called home, "I love it!"

He spent high school at Berkshire. He played soccer in the fall, but was required to participate in other sports in the winter and spring. It was a revelation. "He had been on a conveyor belt his whole life," Moodey says. "For seven years, he took the same bus to Manchester United. He drove down the left wing and crossed the ball. Then he got on the bus and went home." At Berkshire, Jack played squash, ran track and mountain biked. He studied neuroscience and economics and advanced psychology. "My idea was, I've got these opportunities," he says. "'I have to make the most of them.'"

At Manchester United, Harrison would become proficient in his footballing skills. But surrounded by so much talent, he'd lost confidence. "I had this sensation that maybe I couldn't do some of the things that some of the others could do," he says. "My belief in myself just kind of went away. When I went to Berkshire, I found it again."

It was a relief not having to worry that his future was on the line each time he touched the ball. "At Berkshire I wasn't stressing myself, 'You have to be a professional player,'" he says. "I was just taking it as it comes."

He barely played varsity as a freshman. Matched against athletes on the far side of puberty, he couldn't compete. "He had to learn to adapt," Moodey says. As a midfielder, Harrison eventually led both Berkshire and Moodey's club team to No. 1 in the national rankings. After his senior season, he was named by Gatorade as the best high school player in the nation.

By then, players Harrison had known, including Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay, were beginning to train with the first team at Carrington. Back in America, Jack Harrison headed off to college.

Harrison arrived at Wake Forest, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as the most heralded freshman in the country. By the middle of his freshman season, it had become clear that he would get chosen in the MLS SuperDraft. By the end, Harrison was in the conversation to go No. 1 overall.

One team targeting Harrison was the New York Red Bulls, who were managed by Marsch at the time. "We considered finding a way to draft him," Marsch says. "Unfortunately, the enemy had taken him."

At the time, NYCFC's squad included Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. All had enjoyed majestic careers in major European leagues, but they hadn't prevented a 17th-place finish, which positioned the club to select fourth in the draft. Claudio Reyna, the former Manchester City player and USMNT standout who was the sporting director at NYCFC at the time, wanted Harrison enough to engineer a deal with Chicago for the top pick.

There was probably nowhere more suitable for him to start his career. Lampard, the only other Englishman on the team, exerted an especially strong influence on the 19-year-old; the two still text regularly. Patrick Vieira, the former Arsenal midfielder who now manages Crystal Palace, was NYCFC's head coach. "He was demanding and very intense," Harrison says. "But he'd look after me, and try to help me in whatever way possible."

Vieira's standards for Harrison were high, but Harrison's own standards were higher. Each time he stepped on the field, he expected to be one of the best players. "He was very hard on himself," Reyna says. "He's someone who very much wants to do well. And that's where his frustration came in. Even when he had a productive day, he'd think about the chances he'd had, and the passes that he didn't complete."

The other fortuitous aspect to NYCFC was its ownership. The MLS side was the first offspring of the City Football Group, the corporate entity that was starting to accumulate affiliated clubs around the globe. The same methodology that transformed Manchester City into a European power was being applied in New York, and the link to Manchester meant that when the time came, Harrison had a clear path to England.

That happened in January 2018. Except rather than Manchester City, which bought his contract from NYCFC, Harrison was sent on loan to Middlesbrough, in the Championship. In the months that followed, he almost never played. He trained hard, tried to impress and found ways to improve, but the move away from New York seemed like a mistake.

Manchester City's Marwood, who had engineered the transfer, couldn't help thinking the same. "I'd be lying to you if I said I'd laid comfortably on my sofa and thought, 'Don't worry, this will all work out,'" he says. "But Jack figured a lot of it out himself. Middlesbrough taught him how to overcome adversity. Those might have been the most important six months he's had."

Still, by the summer of 2018, Harrison's pathway to the Premier League seemed stalled. At 21, he was by all appearances still not ready for the Championship. Manchester City had a collection of world-class attackers with gaudy résumés; Harrison was wildly unlikely to even make the team. He needed to be lent out again, but what manager would take a chance on someone who had spent half a season with a mediocre Championship side and could hardly get in a game?

Then, out of nowhere, one came calling. Newly hired at Leeds, he carried with him a dossier of data that identified Jack Harrison as the player he needed. He gave Harrison a presentation detailing how his skills as a playmaking winger would mesh perfectly with the system that was being installed at Leeds. With Harrison's blessing, Manchester City agreed to the deal as a loan. It was eventually consummated as a sale last summer.

By then, Harrison had become fully immersed in the messianic cult of Marcelo Bielsa.

Another dinner, on a recent Thursday, at an Italian restaurant near the house behind a stone wall where Harrison lives in a leafy Leeds exurb. Harrison's plate had been covered with Italian meats and cheeses only moments before. Now it was empty. Harrison reached for the serving tongs and took another run at the antipasto, though a main course was headed his way. "This is very good," he said.

Harrison had previously been to the restaurant for his teammate Raphinha's birthday lunch. "I really enjoyed it," he said. "But I haven't come back. I don't know why."

Actually, he does. During the 45 months that Bielsa employed his singular pedagogical methods at Leeds, unauthorized eating was strongly discouraged. Each morning when players arrived for training, they stepped on a scale. Anyone who exceeded his optimal weight was fined. If Harrison did occasionally indulge in a modestly hedonistic meal -- like the one he was in the midst of that evening -- he'd feel so guilty that he couldn't enjoy it.

Playing for Bielsa required complete submission. Before each game, he met with starters and reserves at the team hotel or on the bus headed to the stadium. He would conduct a video review of their previous performance and provide instructions for the coming fixture. Those instructions were as rigid as the choreography for a Broadway musical.

Fortunately for Bielsa, he had inherited or acquired aspirational Premier Leaguers willing to do whatever was necessary to gain promotion. "It was a special connection we had with Marcelo," Harrison says. "It allowed him to get what he wanted on the pitch."

In Bielsa, Harrison found a coach who valued what he excelled at. In Harrison's two seasons in the Championship, he started 79 games. He scored 10 goals. Bielsa didn't care. Goals were less important to him than crosses; individual virtuosity was less important than tracking back; and everything was secondary to work rate.

Bielsa expects his teams to push forward, with the ball and without it. Doing that over 90 minutes requires exceptional stamina. "He wants players who have energy," Marwood explains, "and who repeat that energy over and over again." That suited Harrison, for whom fitness is a prime feature of his game.

At Thorp Arch, the Leeds training ground, Harrison takes pride in time spent working out. "I'm someone who always likes to do the most," he says. Then he goes home and does more in the gym inside his house. He works so hard, and for so long, that Bamford occasionally feels the need to pull him back. "If you overwater a plant, you kill it," he'll tell Harrison. "You need time to recover or you'll burn out."

"Sometimes I'll go to the coaches and ask for a new program," Harrison admits. "And they'll say, 'no, no, Jack, just calm down.'"

In 2020, Leeds returned to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years. Harrison played a major role, fitting perfectly as a peripatetic cog in Bielsa's machine. Emotionally, though, Bielsa was barren. At NYCFC, Harrison would ask Vieira questions and learn from every answer. "But if you did that with Marcelo, he would become agitated," he says, and so Harrison found himself using some of the psychology he had learned at Berkshire. "I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of people," he says, "and when they're trying to manipulate you."

The team's run of success continued in the Premier League. Leeds finished ninth and accumulated 59 points, the most by any newly promoted club in two decades. But last fall, the strain started to show. Harrison didn't score until after New Year's, part of his side's general breakdown. "We had been doing the same drills for three-and-a-half years," Harrison says. "It became quite monotonous." It is not irrelevant that Bielsa didn't last longer than two seasons at any of the nine previous clubs he had managed.

By February, Leeds had sunk to only a few points above relegation. Bielsa works with one-year contracts, and the strategic plan had been for Marsch to replace him after this season. But events accelerated the timetable. Marsch's first game was in early March.

Before he left, Bielsa met with the Leeds players for the last time. He engaged with them at a personal level that he had never allowed while managing them. In effect, he was finally saying hello when it was time to say goodbye. "It was quite emotional for him," Harrison says. "I think it was really, really hard. He wasn't expecting to have that kind of reaction. He told us, 'If I did, I would have just written a letter.'"

The team that Marsch sent out on the field for what became a 4-0 loss to Manchester City last weekend had a peculiar feature. Not one of the Leeds starters had played a single minute in the Premier League before coming to the club.

That fact highlights the greatest challenge facing Marsch as he battles for Premier League survival. (They're in 18th place with three games left.) With only a few exceptions, his is a Championship team that has been prodded, exhorted and threatened into playing at a heightened level for the past three seasons. With much of that emotional force exhausted, what remains is an inferior side, one that was hopelessly outclassed by Manchester City and Arsenal in its past two games and faces long odds again this week against Chelsea.

Marsch has retained Bielsa's basic system but has introduced some proprietary elements. He wants his wingers to play a more interior role and look to break on counterattacks. To Marsch, Harrison seems ideally suited. "He can run all day," he says. "He's explosive. He's effective in one-vs.-one situations. He's dangerous. And he's smart." He has suggested to Harrison that he leave his sweet, likeable nature in the changing room. "Be a son of a b---- on the pitch," Marsch told him.

Harrison started slowly under Marsch. Against Leicester and Villa, he was subbed off. He wasn't in the starting XI against Norwich. Then he scored in three consecutive matches, against Wolves, Southampton and Watford. Not coincidentally, Leeds won two of those and drew the third, a seven-point run that briefly moved it out of the bottom three at the time. Harrison attributed his surge to "more ruthlessness in my game. That's why I'm so excited to keep working with Jesse," he says. "A lot of good things can happen when you communicate."

Harrison wants to play in the Champions League and for England. He definitely wants to stay in the Premier League. Leeds is battling for survival, but a flurry of published reports already have linked Harrison with Tottenham. Other top clubs are also said to have an interest. He says he's ready for whatever happens. "People say nobody is as strict or rigid as Marcelo, and I'm glad because he has prepared me for the future," he says. "After working with him for three-and-a-half years, I have the feeling that I could go anywhere and be able to handle what's thrown at me."

At the Italian restaurant, his main course finally arrives. Harrison has pushed himself hard in the gym that afternoon. His star is shining these days; under Marsch, nobody has scored more goals for Leeds. At 25, his future is still brighter than his past. He can let himself feel content for a few hours until the work begins again tomorrow.

The server makes a show of setting down his plate full of food.

"Looks fantastic," Harrison says, picking up his fork.