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SSFC Spotlight: Nathan Harriel dominating defensive side of the game for Philadelphia Union

The United States youth international is enjoying a strong 2022 season.

Los Angeles FC 2 Philadelphia Union 2 during a Major League Soccer match at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

In every league around the world, each year brings the unexpected breakthrough of a few new talents. The first three months of the 2022 Major League Soccer season has produced a few interesting players, including the emergence of an American youth international. Nathan Harriel has been dominant for the Philadelphia Union, shutting down opponents since seizing the starting role. The 21-year-old right back is registering key performances and rapidly becoming a potential option for the national team.

Born in Oldsmar, Florida, Harriel played for Clearwater’s Chargers SC and was named to the United Soccer Coaches All-America Team, considered one of the country’s top unaffiliated prospects. Turning down a scholarship to Clemson University, he joined the Philadelphia Union’s academy in 2018 over Atlanta United, drawn to the “family atmosphere” and history of development. The “diamond in the rough” began playing for the club’s reserve side and made 36 appearances during two seasons in the USL Championship.

In advance of the 2021 season, Harriel signed a Homegrown contract with the Union, after the club traded with Orlando City SC for his rights. “Nate is a promising young player who has a lot of potential to thrive in our style of play,” said Sporting Director Ernst Tanner. “He can dominate wide areas with his speed and looks to play forward after winning the ball. His versatility on the backline makes him a valuable asset to the team and we look forward to watching him develop as he continues to progress through our system.”

Harriel made his first-team debut in a late-season fixture against the New England Revolution. He finished with five regular season appearances and contributed the eventual match-winning assist in a 2-1 victory over FC Cincinnati, which earned him the club’s award for Assist of the Year. The rookie featured in two playoff matches, starting and playing 90 minutes during the Eastern Conference Final. The coaching staff praised him for winning one-on-one duels and “embracing defense” instead of constantly looking to push forward.

This year, Harriel has taken MLS by storm after a strong preseason in which his “performance” enabled him to beat out veteran teammates. Despite spending the opener on the bench, he has played all but seven minutes over the last ten matches. The defender was named to the league’s Team of the Week for impressive showings in weeks three and four, benefitting from veteran influence that is helping him to find a balance in his game.

While yet to make a significant impact on the attack, figures around the club believe he is close to a breakthrough, particularly on set pieces. “He’s a really interesting player,” Philadelphia assistant Frank Leicht told The Free Kick Podcast. “He can jump. His size is not very big, and I think he’s underrated from the opponents… Everyone needs to focus on [his teammates] and you see there is no man-marker on Nathan.”

At the youth international level, Harriel featured occasionally with the United States program, receiving call-ups to the U-18, U-19, U-20, and U-23 teams. His latest appearance was with the U-20 side in January of 2020, scoring in a 2-2 draw against Mexico. His hope is to return with the U-23 squad or at January camp after this year’s World Cup, provided his form and performances “continue to be great.”

A shutout fullback with elite athleticism who can also play center back on a three-player backline, Harriel has thrived at right back in the Union’s high-pressing/vertical-attacking tactical system. Despite standing 5’10”, winning headers is a key part of his game, jumping as if “his boots are spring-loaded.” He is working “to become a better passer,” while already making a contribution in the final third with his crossing. His success in 2022 is best demonstrated when compared to other MLS players at the same position, registering impressive numbers in all of the key defensive statistics.

Image via FBref.com

“He’s only been with us for a pretty short time, he’s still a young defender, but the one thing I love about him is how brave he is,” manager Jim Curtin shared recently. “He always defends forward and never does it in an aggressive way. He comes out on a lot of duels… He wins all of his aerial duels, and wins his one-on-ones... The thing he has improved on most in the past six months is his ability to join the attack, he’s so fast with the ball. Sometimes he probably forgets that he can poke the ball past a defender and get a cross in because he is that fast... I think there is another level he can get to and we want him to be impactful in attack, but overall he is a damn good defender.”

While enjoying a solid run of form, this is the first extended senior-team opportunity Harriel has received during his career. With continued growth and development, his potential ceiling could go far beyond MLS, following in the path of Union teammates like Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson. If his strong performances continue, the young defender may even force his way into the senior national team. The USMNT fullback depth chart is loaded, but there is always room for a player on the back line who can completely bury an opponent.