More mature, dynamic Harrison has the look of NYCFC's future cornerstone

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

David Villa won't be around forever, but his replacement appears to already be on New York City FC's roster.

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New York City FC had just finished winning its first and, as of now, only meeting against the crosstown-rival New York Red Bulls last July by a 2-0 mark, and David Villa was gushing.

Villa, typically pretty reserved, couldn’t help but heap praise on a major contributor to that victory: then-rookie Jack Harrison.

“He has something that only a few players have,” Villa said. “Every time he has the ball at his feet, you get the feeling something special is going to happen. Few players give you that feeling and he has it. He has it at 19 years old, and he has not had much time as a professional. He has it, which is most important, but he is also a great kid who knows where he has to take his career.

“Day after day, he wants to learn and grow.”

That’s high praise from a World Cup and Champions League winner. Ten months later, Harrison is demonstrating more of the quality that could one day make him the potential face of the franchise.

I think Jack grew up as a player. He’s getting better every day, every week because of the way he is training. When he has the opportunity, he shows me how good he is.

- Patrick Vieira

Villa and Andrea Pirlo are currently that, and Maxi Moralez is the team’s headline new addition, but it might not be long before Harrison replaces them as NYCFC’s biggest star. Villa, 35, and Pirlo, who turns 38 this month, are aging, and their current contracts expire at the end of this season. Harrison, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, is one of the brightest budding young talents in MLS.

The 20-year-old winger has taken his second year as a professional head on, amassing four goals and one assist while starting in all eight games for an NYCFC team that is in third place in the Eastern Conference. The four tallies have already matched his haul from a season ago.

And it isn’t as simple as Harrison being the beneficiary of Villa. Harrison’s two-goal performance that led New York City FC to a 3-2 comeback win on the road over Columbus Crew SC on Saturday came with Villa absent due to illness. Harrison’s first goal was a majestic left-footed chip from a tight angle that surprised Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

A strike like that from a young prospect is enough to make the club’s coaches and marketing team alike salivate, but Harrison has become multidimensional in 2017. Whereas last year he was mostly a head-down player who wanted to dribble at defenders, this year Harrison has made strides in his distribution and off-the-ball movement.

He is crossing with more frequency, as evidenced by his secondary assist on Villa’s goal in NYCFC’s 2-1 road loss to D.C. United last month, and his runs are more intelligent and mature. That’s an overlooked element of his first goal on Saturday; the chip was the flashy part, but his run made it possible. His game-winner in a 2-0 triumph over the Philadelphia Union a week later.

Harrison is a difference-making in the final third, blessed with speed, confidence and a good left foot. But he is also willing to put in the work defensively in head coach Patrick Vieira’s typically high-pressure system.

“When you look at Jack, he was fantastic,” Vieira told reporters in Columbus, Ohio, over the weekend. “Not just because of the goals he scored, but the way he worked for the team.

“I think Jack grew up as a player. He’s getting better every day, every week because of the way he is training. He is working hard with Villa every day. Of course, that’s a great result. He wants to play every week and he’s working really hard in training. When he has the opportunity, he shows me how good he is.”

Harrison has quickly morphed from a raw understudy to one of the most important players on a team expecting to be a contender this season. Vieira and the club know it, too, which is why Harrison has started every game through the opening two months of the season.

Should Harrison stay on this trajectory, New York City FC might not need to go into the transfer market to find an eventual replacement for Villa. The club already has its next special player on its roster.

Just ask Villa if you are still unsure.

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