NEW YORK — Jack Harrison probably thought it was a weird time for a coach to pull a prank on him. But for a split second, the New York City FC winger wasn't sure what to think when Patrick Vieira took him aside and told him he was being called in by the England Under-21 national team.
"I didn't believe him at first but it was a great moment, I was really surprised," Harrison told Goal. "He said, 'I'm not really supposed to tell you now, I'm supposed to tell you after the game, but you've been selected for the U-21s.'"
To call the news a surprise was an understatement, but the call itself shouldn't have been a complete shock. After all, Harrison was in the midst of a stellar second season at NYCFC. His 10 goals and six assists have been key to NYCFC's success, and at 20 years old, he has established himself as one of the best young players in the league.
"What I love about him is that he hasn't changed since the first time I met him at the (2016 MLS) draft," Vieira told Goal. "He still has the love, the passion, he's still the first in training and the last one to leave. He just wants to have the ball and kick the ball around. He loves the game, which is really important."
Harrison's humble nature has helped him grow, even as expectations continue to increase. He has successfully avoided getting caught up in his own hype, which explains why he had concerns about how he would hold up in England camp.
Those concerns were quickly put to rest.
"I actually surprised myself. After about one or two training sessions I realized that I settled in much quicker than what I thought I would," Harrison said. "I thought I might struggle there, and be behind the guys, but I surprised myself. It was really encouraging to realize that because they're a great team, they won the U-20 World Cup last summer, they've been together for a while and those guys are really tight. For me to go there and settle in very quickly was very encouraging for myself."
England U-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd saw enough from Harrison to give him minutes in both European Championship qualifiers the team played in October, first a two-minute cameo in a 3-1 win against Scotland, then a start in a 1-0 victory over Andorra.
Harrison came away from his time having enjoyed the experience completely, from the competition to the jokes, including at least a few cracks about him having developed a bit of an American accent.
"It was a great experience. I definitely learned a lot from being there and I'm grateful for that opportunity," Harrison said. "It was nice to be back around the guys, and the banter. They were asking a lot of questions about MLS, they seem really intrigued, which I was surprised by."
U.S. national team fans who may have been holding out hope that Harrison might one day become a U.S. citizen and play for the United States saw that dream dashed by Harrison's recent England U-21 appearances. Though Harrison does have a green card, and is on the path to American citizenship, his appearances in an official competition for England essentially cap-tie him to England. According to FIFA rules, once a player has played in an official youth competition for one country, he cannot switch to another country unless he was already eligible for both countries when he made that first international appearance.
Harrison is back with NYCFC, and will look to help the team shake off a late-season slump as it plays for seeding in the MLS playoffs. Harrison drew the first red card of his career in Sunday's 2-1 loss to New England, but the ejection has since been rescinded, making him available for a crucial regular season finale against the Columbus Crew on Sunday at Citi Field.
As for Harrison's future with the England U-21s, he may have to wait a while longer for another call, especially if NYCFC makes a run in the postseason. Should NYCFC advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Harrison would find himself playing a second leg Nov. 5 — one day after players are supposed to report to camp ahead of England's match against Ukraine on Nov. 10.
"We'll have to wait and see, because of the playoffs and everything," Harrison said. "I spoke to Aidy and he said he thought I did really well and proved that I belong there, which was really encouraging to hear."