You might not know the name yet, but Haji Wright is poised to become the next big thing for football in America. Tall and powerful, he rose through the LA Galaxy youth system with elastic reflexes and a killer’s eye for goal. And he’s only 16.
Wright scored 18 times in 22 games last year for the Stars and Stripes U-17s, setting up seven more goals in the process. Those are the kind of numbers that get fans and amateur prognosticators bouncing on their keyboards. Tweets and re-tweets zig and zag, telling tales of the player – what he could be and what he could do – even though few have actually seen him play. He has not yet signed a professional contract, but 'Wright' is the name on everyone’s lips as he sets off for Honduras and this month’s qualifying tournament for the U-17 World Cup, to be staged in the fall in Chile.
But, like every promising football phenom in America, a shadow hangs over young Wright. It’s the shadow of Freddy Adu.
Twelve years ago, Adu, born in Ghana, caused a sensation at the U-17 World Cup. At the tender age of 13, in the shade of a towering ski jump in Lahti, Finland, the squat prodigy scored in the early minutes of the USA’s opener against Korea Republic. It was not your ordinary tap-in. It was not a right-place-right-time finish. The goal was audacious. Adu found a slender seam in the Korean defence and burst past four desperate, diving defenders and the keeper too.
Too much, too soon
He went on to become the youngest professional in the history of American sport. Some even whispered cautious comparisons to a young Pele. TV booking agents were desperate to get the youngster, barely in his teens, on all the national chat shows. The hype-machine was pegged at full throttle. Adu was the messiah US soccer was waiting for. But fast-forward to now and Freddy Adu’s name is synonymous with wasted talent. He is a cautionary tale, recently released from FK Jagodina in Serbia, his tenth club in ten years.
In the decade of Adu’s fast rise and long fall, soccer hit the mainstream in America. A new and vigorous fan base emerged, demanding success with a capital S. These fans live on the Internet and hoe the soil searching for the hottest prospects, the ones that might deliver glory. To them, Haji Wright could be it.
Those closest to the player are eager to dampen the hype, knowing Wright is merely a member of a youth team looking to reach this year’s U-17 World Cup. When the Americans missed out on the party in UAE two years ago, it was the first time they failed to qualify in the tournament’s 30-year history. “Wright’s tall,” Richie Williams, coach of the USA juniors, a dogged and diminutive veteran of MLS’ early days, told Grantland, a publication that did not exist when Freddy Adu wriggled through the Korean defence in ‘03. “He's athletic. Technically, he’s very good. He has a great ability to run at players. He can score goals or set up goals.”
The USA U-17 program has produced its share of hotshots. Freddy Adu is not the only story. DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Johnson and Kyle Beckerman came through the ranks too. So did Landon Donovan, most famously. In 1999, Donovan – a legend at Wright’s current club LA Galaxy – was named tournament top player at the U-17 finals in New Zealand where the Americans finished fourth.
“He exudes confidence,” said Peter Vagenas a former LA playing favorite, who knows Wright intimately as head of the Galaxy’s youth academy. “He has a pretty high level combination of technique and athleticism.”
When his coaches talk about Wright they use a delicate balance of compliment and caution. Gas and brake. It might be the lesson of Freddy Adu, but it’s also the nature of football at U-17 level. It is an age of transition. Picking stars of the future on pitches of the junior game is a tricky business. And all the speculation in the world doesn’t make it easier, or more accurate.
Wright, along with recent Borussia Dortmund signing Christian Pulisic, is eager to let his feet do the talking. The Americans take on CONCACAF’s best, including two-time U-17 World Champions Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras from 27 February to 12 March, with a top-four finish enough to secure a spot in Chile.