Haji Wright’s winding road back to USMNT picture could take him to the World Cup

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It seems that just about everyone connected with the United States men’s national team is pulling like mad for Haji Wright.

In many respects, it’s because the path his career has taken is so relatable in that little has come easy to him. Granted, there was a time when he was the latest next big thing in U.S. soccer. Along with Christian Pulisic, he was tabbed early as one of the players to watch from the U.S. U17 national team in 2005. Pulisic acknowledged that he and Wright “were the duo back in the day.”

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But while Pulisic went on to enjoy near-instant success at the professional level, Wright has found a tidal wave of struggle, bouncing around among myriad clubs. With it, he has experienced the challenges of adapting to different teams, managers and cultures. There was also the weight of expectations, and even worse, his disappearing from the national-team radar to the extent that there weren’t any expectations at all.

“It definitely hasn’t been linear,” Wright said during a roundtable with reporters about his career path. “A lot of ups and downs, had a lot of good patches and rough patches. I think I’ve persevered through the rough patches and I’ve enjoyed the good patches.”

Right now certainly counts as a good patch. Wright is coming off a club season with Turkish side Antalyaspor in which he scored 15 goals in 35 league and cup appearances, a campaign so impressive that it earned him a call-up to the full national team.

Wright began to repay that faith last Wednesday, scoring a penalty on his international debut in a 3-0 win over Morocco. But the manner of his goal and its aftermath showed just how much people are pulling for him. When Wright asked Pulisic if he could take the penalty, his former youth international teammate was only too happy to oblige. And when Wright converted, he was embraced by another youth international teammate, Tyler Adams. Weston McKennie, Wright’s former club teammate at German club Schalke, got in on the act as well, running onto the field from where he was warming up to wrap Wright up in a hug.

Two days later, and with Sunday’s friendly against Uruguay looming, the goodwill has shown no signs of abating. U.S. defender Erik Palmer-Brown, no stranger himself to meandering European journeys, spoke of the postmatch celebrations surrounding Wright in the locker room.

“I think Haji has gone through a lot, bounced around in Europe, I’ve done the same and to see him get that moment, for our captain Christian to pass up that ball to him, it just shows the camaraderie of this team,” said Palmer-Brown. “The ability of this team to persevere and show that we’re not selfish, and we go out there and we have fun. And after in the locker room, it was a blast to celebrate with him.”

As the club journeys of Americans abroad go, Wright’s has certainly been one of the more nomadic. After a brief stint in the U.S. with the New York Cosmos — a kind of way station before he could head to Europe — he signed with Schalke. And while he enjoyed some success with their youth sides, he never quite made a complete breakthrough to the first team, scoring just one goal in eight league and cup appearances.

He seemed to hit rock bottom following a transfer to Dutch side VVV Venlo, failing to find the net in 22 appearances. A move to the Danish Superliga with SonderjyskE saw his fortunes tick up, as he scored 13 goals in 35 league and cup appearances. Even so, when Wright was loaned out to Antalyaspor, there was little reason to think he was a player on the rise.

Yet Wright found a home in Antalya. He enjoyed the warmer weather, the food and the people there. But the biggest change of all was that he encountered a manager in former Borussia Dortmund star Nuri Sahin who believed in Wright, and committed to playing him as a central striker instead of out wide, where he had been deployed at times in the past.

“[Sahin] understands what I bring to the table and he puts me in situations where I can help the team score goals or create goals,” said Wright. “And he’s also taught me a lot of about being a striker. He’s very well-informed, he’s played at a very high level, and he’s just passing on that knowledge to me and helping me evolve.”

Wright added, “He’s helped me more in my build-up play, my link-up play with other players around me. And he’s [helped] my positioning general when we have the ball as a striker. He’s put me in places positionwise where I can be in front of the goal, be the guy taking the shots, be the guy getting the rebounds or whatever it may be.”

Along the way, the ups and downs have taught Wright an important lesson.

“It teaches you that not everything is permanent,” Wright said. “Even poor form isn’t permanent. You can always get over the rough patch and find a good patch, a green patch.”

Earlier this year, U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter paid a visit to Liverpool, and staff in the club’s player recruitment department told Berhalter how they were looking for players who had endured setbacks and for whom the road wasn’t smooth, because the task for any new arrival to LFC was going to be immensely difficult. The statement struck a chord with Berhalter.

“I love that idea, and for Haji, that’s exactly what I see,” Berhalter told ESPN.

Wright was among the players that Berhalter hit up when he first took over as U.S. manager in 2018, and he has been monitoring the player’s progress ever since, especially this season.

“All he’s been doing is persevering,” Berhalter said about Wright. “I’m in close contact with [Antalyaspor’s] coaching staff, and I’ve spoken to them about his journey with their club alone. And they said he’s made a ton of progress in this last year, and what they see is he’s turned the corner.”

So what took Wright so long? Berhalter notes how every player has their own journey. The fact that Wright spent time out wide didn’t help his career. Berhalter also highlighted how Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah both failed to make the grade at Chelsea before excelling with Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively.

Wright obviously has a ways to go before he even begins to approach those players’ level, but with less than six months to go until the World Cup in Qatar, and with the competition for striker position on the U.S. team wide open, he can still help the U.S. now. Berhalter said he’s been impressed with Wright’s ability to get behind defenses, and that trait was apparent against Morocco. He also likes Wright’s combination play and ability to finish.

Berhalter would like to see improvement in Wright’s hold-up play and his movement inside the box, but is optimistic that can be achieved, and notes that Wright is still learning some of the subtleties of the striker position.

“I think he understands the process much better now, the process of ‘you get out what you put into it,'” Berhalter said. “And he’s working extremely hard, and his mentality is very strong this year, from the reports of the coaching staff, and that’s important in our game.”

For now, Wright is enjoying getting to know his new teammates, and getting reacquainted with players such as Pulisic, McKennie and Luca de la Torre, with whom he crossed paths in the past. Players grow and skill sets change. As for off the field?

“They haven’t really changed much,” he said of his former U17 teammates. “They’re still the same goofy guys that I knew back when we were 15, 14 years old. We’ve always got along well and I think they’re good people. They’re nice guys, and I like being around them.”

If Wright can solve the U.S. team’s striker woes, the good vibes will continue.


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