Jack Harrison's England U-21 call-up is the most significant MLS milestone in years

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Jack Harrison will probably never be a full England national team player.

Or maybe he will be, for a handful of games. But he surely won’t become a regular.

The Stoke-born New York City FC winger, who will turn 21 later this year, is unlikely to ever progress to England’s senior team in any meaningful fashion. That’s no reflection on him or his talent. The former Manchester United academy player, who moved to the United States when he was 14, became a college star at Wake Forest and then the No. 1 MLS draft pick in 2016, probably won’t get a whole lot further on the international stage.

On Sunday, he was called up to England’s under-21 national team, and it was widely hailed as the enormous achievement that it is.

But the truth of the matter is that England already has Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, who can all play on the flank, and none of whom are older than 24. That’s to say nothing of the logjam on the under-21s. Demarai Gray, Ademola Lookman and Ainsley Maitland-Niles – of Leicester City, Everton and Arsenal, respectively, where they are all either regulars or top prospects – might make it hard for Harrison to even see the field at the highest youth level.

To become a bona fide England regular, Harrison has staggering odds to overcome.

Yet he has already triumphed over very long odds just by getting himself where he is now. He has forged an international career for one of international soccer’s legacy programs out of Major League Soccer. And that’s enormously significant.

When David Beckham continued to represent England after his ballyhooed and paradigm-shifting arrival to the LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007, it was a coup for MLS – even if he kept having to go on loan to AC Milan to truly convince the England coaches that he was still worthy. That Robbie Keane’s Ireland career continued to thrive after he arrived stateside was a boon, even though the Irish aren’t an international soccer power. And it was validating when Obafemi Martins was still getting the occasional call from Nigeria while in MLS.

It was especially encouraging that Italy’s Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa breathed new life into their national team careers while active in MLS. Evidently, their many accomplishments here — and whatever Pirlo has done — counted for something.

But Harrison’s achievement, even though his is merely a youth team call-up, is cataclysmic in a different way.

Former Manchester United academy product Jack Harrison is thriving with NYCFC. (NBC Sports)
Former Manchester United academy product Jack Harrison is thriving with NYCFC. (NBC Sports)

All of those big names who kept on getting calls for their countries, Beckham and Pirlo and all the rest, were established national teamers long before they came to MLS. And while it was impressive and a tad unexpected that they should extend those careers from across the Atlantic, all they had to demonstrate was that they could still be helpful to their managers — that they weren’t completely past it.

Harrison hasn’t played in England in more than half a decade. He never had a national team career of any kind. He is probably the first player to fashion European national team prospects out of whole cloth from across the pond. And he’s done it in a program that famously looks only inwards to source its talent. The English have never seen much of a need to go play abroad, especially since the Premier League has become the richest and most celebrated soccer circuit around in the last two decades. And so its youth national team scouting apparatus isn’t programmed to look abroad. Indeed, he is the only call-up in quite some time who isn’t active in Great Britain.

All the same, Harrison caught the attention with double-digit goals in MLS this year.

We’ve known for some time that going to MLS is no longer a national team career ender for Europeans – provided you’re a big enough star upon your departure. But what Harrison has demonstrated is that MLS can now also be the start of your journey in the international game, even if you’re from Europe.

And that could open up a broad new avenue of potential talent for the league to recruit.

If Harrison isn’t a one-off, and if some other young player with a passport from a traditional soccer power were to push through a crowded talent pool while on an MLS roster as well, it could allow the league’s teams to sell themselves as a viable means to national team ends.

There is enormous value in that. Soccer players plan their careers carefully. They consider where they will be seen by bigger clubs, from better leagues, and where they might catch the eye of their national teams. Because national team careers boost your value at the club level, where you ultimately make the bulk of your money.

In the past, young players might have signed with MLS in spite of a possible negative effect to their national team chances, as many national team managers — at the senior and youth level — looked down on the stateside league. Those players that did sign must have considered it a con outweighed by the pros in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe they thought they had no hope at all anyway, and so had nothing to lose.

Harrison demonstrates that this doesn’t have to be true. That MLS can be a place where you develop and then thrive and then shine, brightly enough for someone to catch a glimmer of you. As the league slowly tips its model from one powered by the fading mystique of old stars to one that runs on exciting young talent, that’s the biggest selling point it could hope for.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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