More than a year ago, as his teammates celebrated at midfield, Haji Wright took in the scene from the sideline as he hefted the most significant individual trophy of his international career. A gold boot bolted to a block of wood. As it turned out, that trophy symbolized a turning point in one of the most anticipated young soccer careers in America.
In December, 2013, Wright was the high scorer at the Nike International Friendlies in Florida, scoring five goals in three games for the U.S. U17 Men’s National Team against Portugal, England and Brazil. The Americans won the tournament with a 4-1 victory over the lackluster Brazilians, which conceded two of its four goals to Wright. The celebration was electric. A handful of international scouts were present for the tournament, including a delegation from Borussia Dortmund. Less than a year later, tournament MVP Christian Pulisic was training in Dortmund.
But at least professionally, things stayed relatively quiet for Wright. Until now.
On March 30, the NASL’s New York Cosmos swooped in on Wright and signed the forward to his first professional contract days after his 17th birthday. While he had deeper ties to the LA Galaxy, Wright saw his best fit in New York in the relative wild west of the NASL. The lure of playing with players like Raul and Marcos Senna was too enticing a prospect to pass up, and his proximity to more consistent first team minutes was intoxicating.
“I heard about Raul and Marcos signing here, and all the legendary history that surrounds this club,” Wright said. “It was a great opportunity for me to come here and learn and develop as a player.”
Wright had been a longtime LA Galaxy prospect, but his competitive history with the club was relatively short. The Development Academy’s records list Wright’s last game with any Galaxy academy side as a 4-2 loss with the U16s against Chivas USA on May 18, 2013. Wright scored both Galaxy goals.
That Galaxy team missed the playoffs, and Wright was called into the U17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida later that summer. He never played for the Galaxy academy team in a competitive match again. He spent both the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters away at U17 residency, compiling an impressive international resume in the process. In 2014 alone, he scored 18 goals in 22 matches shifting flanks and playing as the striker in coach Richie Williams' 4-3-3 setup. His lateral quickness, on-ball speed, length and natural finishing ability made him an automatic starter in key matches.
Wright’s professional career appeared to reach a hinge point in August 2014. He spent an afternoon training with the Galaxy’s first team, and a picture of Wright in a red penny trailing Landon Donovan mid-practice ignited rumors he was nearing a contract. A week later, another picture of Wright emerged. Listed as a guest player for Bundesliga giant Schalke’s U17 team, Wright was positioned on the back row of a team photo in Schalke’s distinctive blue jersey. His brother Hanif appeared in a similar photo with the U16 team at the same time. But since Wright doesn’t have an EU passport and won’t turn 18 until 2016, his stay in Germany was legally limited to a few months, beneficial as it was.
“It went well,” Wright said of his time with Schalke. “I learned a lot from the players around me. It’s a great environment at Schalke. I liked it.”
Wright returned from Schalke and spent several weeks in February at CONCACAF qualifying in Honduras with the U17 team, which is nearing the end of its cycle. His last hurrah with the side that so stridently boosted his professional popularity will almost certainly be as a forward at the U17 World Cup in Chile later this year.
While the Cosmos revel in the capture of one of the nation’s top youth national team prospects, the Galaxy are in traction. Wright’s exodus will be particularly galling for Bruce Arena and the Galaxy front office considering this isn’t the first time a highly rated academy player left for another team before signing. The wounds left by Paul Arriola's exit for Tijuana in 2013 are still healing. During an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl in December, Arena said they’d “lost one of their elite players” in Wright, and that “he’s been sitting in Europe for six months now.”
Wright, though, says he was never contacted directly by anyone in the Galaxy front office about signing a professional contract, adding, “I’m not sure if my agent did or anything.” The Galaxy were unavailable for comment.
Nobody knows the foundations of Wright’s story better than Mark Shanley, the coaching architect of Wright’s earliest days as a soccer player. While scouting to build his first youth team, the former youth coach discovered Wright playing AYSO ball in Los Angeles at the U10 level and invited him to play with his Galaxy Alliance side, which was since rebranded as FCLA. Among others, Wright played with Brooklyn Beckham - David’s first son - and his own younger brother Hanif, which first launched him into the U.S. Youth National Team pipeline at the U14 level.
As far as Shanley’s concerned, Wright was always destined for big things. He said if he can continue improving his on-field work ethic and win more 50-50 balls at the professional level, he’ll be a force.
“He’s got a great change of pace,” Shanley said. “He’s always had a fabulous left foot, even though he’s right-footed. We’d play teams and hear the coaches shouting, ‘Force him right, force him right, he can’t use his right.’ We used to laugh and think that he’s actually right-footed. He just uses his left a lot because it’s so good.”
Wright was eventually lured to the Galaxy with the promise of the club’s single youth-to-pro pipeline. But Wright spent comparatively little time in the Galaxy’s youth setup, and as five of his U17 teammates signed to play with clubs abroad, the opportunity clearly enticed Wright enough to try his hand in Europe first.
“(The Galaxy) tried to sign him,” Shanley said. “They tried hard to sign him before he went overseas. They’re probably scratching their heads going, ‘Wait a minute. You’ve signed with the Cosmos when you could have signed with us?’ But if he’s done it for the reasons I think he’s done it, then it makes complete sense.”
Whatever Wright’s reasons for signing for the Cosmos, it’s clear he’s already closer to consistent first team minutes than he was at any point with the Galaxy. Whether that leads to more international appearances, a lengthy career in New York or precipitates a permanent move to Europe, Wright thinks he’s found a cozy place to land for now.
“It feels great to play with pros every day and wake up and do the thing I love to do,” Wright said. “I’m going to work hard and try and earn a starting spot.”