One-time phenom has chance to find himself as USMNT's starting World Cup striker

CINCINNATI — Haji Wright’s World Cup dreams initially sprouted amid broken glass. That’s what his mother, Serena, lovingly recalls about the boy who seemed attached to his soccer ball. His feet would carry it from the family’s Los Angeles backyard to the dining room table. He’d dribble it to the bedroom he shared with his younger brother, Hanif — and that’s where the window would shatter. The brothers broke it at least twice, Serena says. She threatened to leave it unrepaired. She offered them a squishy soccer ball alternative, but to no avail. They were obsessed.

“They also broke a glass in the TV console,” Serena says. “And I was just livid each time.”

She also cherished Haji’s attachment to the sport. He’d grown entranced by YouTube reels of early 21st century stars. After the family moved from Culver City up into L.A.’s hills, 11-year-old Haji would venture into the backyard alone and try to emulate legends. On long summer days, he’d pound the ball against the garage for hours on end, honing his non-dominant left foot and his shooting technique. He’d mimic the Thierry Henrys of the world, and he’d dream — of Europe, of World Cups, of goals in finals.

For most pre-teens, they’re far-fetched fantasies. For Haji, they quickly became “real possibilities.” Soccer moms and scouts alike recognized his rare talent. The L.A. Galaxy academy came calling. Haji excelled at U.S. Soccer’s residency program, where he roomed with a fellow innocent teen named Christian Pulisic. He tallied 18 goals and seven assists in 22 matches for the U.S. under-17s, and became “one of the hottest prospects” in the country. He was the player who reportedly attracted German giants Borussia Dortmund to a youth tournament in 2014, where Dortmund ultimately discovered Pulisic. He was, according to FIFA’s official website in 2015, “poised to become the next big thing for football in America.”

And then, to many American fans who’d lapped up the hype, Wright seemingly disappeared.

He signed with Schalke in the German Bundesliga at age 18 in 2016. He’s since bounced around to five different clubs. He never got the U.S. men’s national team call-up that many assumed would come before his 21st birthday. And as he endured a goal-less 2019-20 league season at VVV-Venlo in Holland, he essentially fell off USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s radar.

That’s when he turned to an outlook he’d adopted as his remarkably steep trajectory turned sideways. “All these experiences,” Serena would tell him, “are going to lead you to where you need to be.” He learned to shun negative thoughts and search for positivity. “There’s always tomorrow to prove myself,” he’d think, and he now says.

Just two years later, he’s the hottest American male striker on the planet. As he banged in 14 goals in 32 appearances for Antalyaspor in the Turkish Super Lig this spring, those childhood dreams came back into focus. Wright is here in Cincinnati as the only true No. 9 at the USMNT’s most important pre-World Cup training camp, where it will face fellow 2022 qualifiers Morocco.

And he will, Berhalter said, “get an opportunity” — to debut, at age 24, for the team he always seemed destined for, and maybe, just maybe, to make the USMNT’s neediest position his.

Haji Wright stood out amid star-laden USMNT youth teams

The hype first bloomed before Serena Wright knew much of anything about soccer, and perhaps even before she knew that Haji had taken to the sport during recess at school. She enrolled him in a rec league around age 7. Other parents were taken aback by his skill. Clubs began making their recruiting pitches. Summer camp invites multiplied. Before long, the words “Europe” and “overseas” entered conversations. “It just did not seem normal to me,” Serena says. It all happened “very quick.”

It fueled young Haji’s confidence. On U.S. youth teams that also included Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, he and Pulisic were the headliners and the stars. Wright scored twice in a 4-1 U-17 victory over Brazil that resonated among American soccer diehards. He moved to Schalke as soon as he was eligible, shortly after his 18th birthday, and “talent-wise, he was ready,” Serena says.

“There were some other pieces that still needed to develop,” she continues. He was, of course, still a boy. He needed Mom’s help with typical teen things, like driver certification. But he picked up the German language surprisingly quickly, and settled into a quiet life that revolved around soccer. In downtime, he absorbed himself in “Call of Duty” and an addictive, “Candy Crush”-like smartphone game called “Toon Blast.” After McKennie joined him at Schalke in August of 2016, the two Americans “were together almost every day,” Wright recalls.

They also seemed to be on parallel paths. They were jointly promoted to Schalke’s senior team toward the end of Wright’s first full season. They were still teens, but “they belong in the first team next year,” Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel said at the time.

As McKennie established himself in the Bundesliga, and Pulisic starred 40 minutes away at Dortmund, Wright began to struggle. After a difficult first preseason with Schalke’s senior team, he was sent on loan to SV Sandhausen in the second division. “And I remember he was really, really upset after that,” Serena says — not because he felt wronged, or unenthused by Sandhausen, but rather because he hadn’t “performed to his full potential” in preseason.

“He was down on himself,” Serena says. And, alone in a foreign land, he had to learn how to pick himself back up.

Wright learns tough lessons about soccer’s nonlinear path

Wright says he didn’t necessarily arrive in Germany envisioning a specific trajectory toward the top of the sport. He did envision playing in packed stadiums in the Ruhr Valley, and across the Bundesliga. He surely envisioned success, because as a child and teen, that’s all he really knew.

“So then when [a setback] happens, it’s unexpected,” Serena points out. “He expected his path to be straightforward,” she continues, but inevitably, “the path, sometimes, is not linear.”

Wright now understands this, more so than most 24-year-olds. But the “twists and turns,” Serena says, were initially challenging. Her son leant on her and his agent for encouragement as his visions failed to materialize. After a sputtering loan spell at Sandhausen, he returned to Schalke for the 2018-19 season, and made his senior debut in November. He scored his first goal in December, but it would be his only one for the club. After just seven appearances, he left the following summer.

At Venlo, where he scored one cup goal and none in 22 league appearances, “it just wasn’t clicking,” Wright says. He understands how unfathomable those numbers are to fans who saw what he once did and see what he’s doing now. Soccer, he explains, comes with “rough patches.” Goalscoring often requires “a bit of luck.” Adjustments to new systems have taken time. Berhalter remembers watching Wright play as a winger rather than a striker, and saying: “We don’t think that’s his strength, and it’s gonna be hard to make an impact with our team in that position.”

By 2020, Wright had acclimatized to soccer hardship. “He wasn’t upbeat, for sure,” during that season at Venlo, Serena says, “but I don’t think he was discouraged.”

Is USMNT about to find the striker it’s long been looking for?

The following year, he took a step down to SønderjyskE in Denmark, and that’s where things began to click. For years, Wright had been a “humble,” “modest,” “chill” team player — which aren’t necessarily the best qualities for a forward. “As a striker,” he now realizes, “you have to be selfish.”

“I don’t think you have to be overly selfish,” he continues. “Like, if you’re 2-v-1 vs. the keeper, you [don’t] shoot, it’s not like that. But I think you definitely have to be selfish to a certain degree.”

His coaches have noticed a new mentality that Wright puts into words: “I have to be the guy to score.”

As he started doing just that last season in Denmark, Berhalter called to tell him: “You’re doing well, we’re watching, keep doing your thing.”

He moved to Antalyaspor on loan last summer, and started slow, but caught fire over the season’s second half. He scored eight goals in eight games throughout April and May, and that’s why he’s here, in U.S. camp with the World Cup six months away.

For years, ever since Jozy Altidore’s prime ebbed away, the USMNT has not had a consistent striker. Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok are injured. Ricardo Pepi, who exploded into the starting lineup last fall, hasn’t scored in almost eight months, and needs a break. For Wright, Berhalter said last week, “now is the perfect time.”

It is, perhaps, not precisely what Wright dreamed of all those years ago. But here he was Sunday, grouped with Pulisic, Adams and McKennie for a pre-training warmup circuit, riding with his former U-17 running mates on the national team bus. They swapped some old stories. “It’s a little nostalgic,” Wright says, and “crazy” that it’s been almost a decade since those innocent residency days.

And it’s “fun,” he says. It feels “normal.” There’s “no weird energy or anything. It’s good times.”

And “obviously,” he says of his impending national team debut, “I was hoping for it to happen earlier. But I’m here now. And that’s really all that matters.”

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