Almost exactly a year ago, a series of photos twirled a budding career on its axis and catapulted Haji Wright’s star into the Andromeda. First, a first team training stint with a team some will know and a man with whom some will be familiar.
Then, about a week later, the emergence of this photo, of Schalke’s U17 team for the fall of 2014, ignited a firestorm of speculation. Was Haji Wright joining Schalke?
The easy answer was no. The more opaque one? It’s complicated. Or it could be, anyway.
At the time (and still), Wright was the darling of a U17 cycle that’s seemingly poised to go where no U.S. U17 team has gone since 1999. For the approaching U17 World Cup in Chile this October, U.S. coach Richie Williams has assembled a roster that’s arguably more individually talented than any since Donovan and Beasley and Beckerman and Onyewu pushed the Americans to the third-place game in New Zealand in ’99. If this team doesn’t bull into the knockouts, even out of a tough group, there will be a reckoning.
Nobody on this team scored more goals than Wright’s 18 in 22 matches in 2014. He might not be the best pro prospect on this roster, but there aren’t many American players with more attacking tools holstered at his side.
So you understood the Galaxy interest – especially so since Wright spent a short amount of time in that academy – and you understood the Schalke interest, even if the latter took most of the developmental world by surprise. Schalke isn’t Real Madrid, but it’s an enormous talent nexus for developing players, and Wright’s inclusion on Schalke’s roster was a shot across the bow.
It didn’t last. We don’t know exactly what Schalke thought of Wright’s time in Gelsenkirchen, or what those final war room conversations covered, but we do know Wright couldn’t obtain an EU passport. As a 16-year-old, that was a death sentence to his short-term future in Germany. He’d have to wait until he was 18. Wright spent the fall in the urban tangle of northwest Germany and returned shortly after Bruce Arena told SI’s Grant Wahl that LA had “lost one of their elite players” in Wright, and that “he’s been sitting in Europe for six months now.”
Wright returned to America, club-less (his last Development Academy match with the Galaxy was on May 18, 2013, three months before he was called into U17 residency for the first time). He played for the U17s in a shaky but successful CONCACAF qualifying campaign in February and then was signed, surprisingly enough, by the NASL’s New York Cosmos on March 30.
Today, the Cosmos did it again, announcing the signing of Wright’s U17 teammate Alexis Velela just today. Velela is arguably the No. 2 center back on the U17 team behind Danny Barbir, and his ball-playing ability and technical class tends to override his lack of size at this age group. He’ll struggle at center back at later stages if he doesn’t hit a growth spurt (he could move to DMid, although that might be a stretch), and his lack of speed makes fullback a tough ask.
But Velela is an enticing prospect. He’s the next generation of American defenders, in that he’s comfortable with both feet and wants to play out of the back. This is a good signing for the Cosmos. And now that they’ve done this twice in five months with U.S. U17 prospects, it signals a trend.
The Cosmos have never had a consistent academy, and Spanish legend Raul was signed last year to serve dual roles as player and the director of the fledgling academy. The thing is still lifting off the ground, with training centers in Long Island and Brooklyn planned to pull in talent the club has never had any particular interest in finding in the past. But the intent is there, which is new. The Cosmos have tried partnering with existing clubs in the past, but a coupling with Blau Weiss Gottschee and Los Angeles Futbol Club collapsed inside two years after its founding in 2012. Enter Raul. Enter Wright. Enter Velela.
Are the Cosmos making a play at being a legitimate destination for young players? For a club that seemingly lives to pull rugs from under MLS’s feet, don’t be surprised when this isn’t the last we hear of New York stocking its ranks with young players to light a fire under its directive to get younger. Even if Velela and Wright are earmarked for first team minutes (the latter has already appeared), the intent is hard to miss. The Cosmos are trying to lure young talent. How successful they’ll be depends on a few factors. Namely whether they intend to keep these players or whether they’re setting themselves up as a misdirective shell organization.
Wright is an interesting case. The cynical among us might view his move as a case of convenience, and the Cosmos as a glorified refrigerator. Follow me into this rabbit hole.
Let’s say Schalke liked Wright. Let’s say they wanted Wright, but transfer rules prevented him from transferring. Without an EU passport, he’s chained to the U.S. until his 18th birthday, on March 27, 2016. In the meantime, Schalke knows someone in America. Someone who played 66 matches for the club over two years. Someone who oversees youth development at a professional club. Someone named Raul.
Now, let’s say a backroom, under-the-table agreement was struck. Let’s say the Cosmos agreed with Schalke’s notion to sign Wright to keep him away from MLS’s more restrictive allocation rule set, to keep him from signing a deal that’d preclude him from moving to Europe. And let’s say the Cosmos went along with the gambit, upping their cachet among younger players while keeping Wright warm for an eventual (and legal) move to Europe after his 18th birthday. The U17 World Cup is a feeding ground for top clubs, which use the showcase to pull in players for their academies they might’ve missed. It’s the academy version of the World Cup. The flurry of transfers in the months afterward is notable.
So it isn’t outlandish that Schalke could be watching the U17 World Cup later this year with baited attention. And if he moves to Europe after his 18th birthday? Don’t say you’ll be surprised.
This is, of course, conjecture, although it’s educated and vaguely sourced. The Cosmos could have no designs on pushing Wright back into Europe, or the handshake arrangement could fall through if Wright gets injured or falls into a slump or the club simply loses interest. But it’s something to chew on in the aftermath of a seemingly random transfer when Wright had a very real pipeline to MLS minutes in his home city waiting for him. Instead, he went entirely across the country, to an NASL club that’s never had a consistently operating academy before.
The Cosmos’ gathering youth project is still in the (very) early stages, so it’s difficult to say whether the capture of players like Velela and Wright will contribute to its legitimacy or simply reaffirm the club’s status as a way-station. But know this: these signings are not historically in the Cosmos’ wheelhouse. It could signal a change in the guard in the way New York is evaluating its talent. Or it could be something else entirely.