Here’s a name to tuck away for later: Alex Harlley. The National Premier Soccer League alum appears to be headed for big things.
That’s the judgment of no less than former U.S. World Cup star Eric Wynalda, who is working to prepare the Togo-born attacker for his path toward stardom. It is not a minority opinion.
Harlley, who emerged from Southern California’s verdant soccer fields, is aiming to make a real impact for Wynalda and the Atlanta Silverbacks when the North American Soccer League’s fall season kicks off next weekend — and in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal against Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire — but that’s just a starting point.
The 22-year-old winger is nowhere near ready yet, and he needs to work hard to ensure he gets where he’s headed, but his speed, size, strength, savvy, ability to change games and a most electric personality gives him a wow factor few others possess.
It’s in the bloodline: Harlley’s uncle is Tottenham star Emmanuel Adebayor, one of Africa’s biggest stars and the greatest player Togo has produced. That’s plenty of incentive.
“He inspires me a lot,” said Harlley, who left Togo for the high desert just north of Los Angeles when he was 17. “I want to be like him. If I can be like him, if I can pass [his achievements] — that’s my dream.”
Making it a reality will require some toil. Harlley has a lot of room to mature, both on the field and in his personal life, but he’s got a growing support network to keep him on the straight and narrow.
That’s not always simple. He’s been involved in a few off-the-field incidents since signing a pro deal with the Silverbacks before the NASL’s spring season — the wildest cost him a tooth when he was hit with a bottle during an early-hours-of-the-morning fight — but Wynalda is working to make him understand what he could be and how he ought to carry himself. The lessons are ongoing.
“I feel like I’m managing [mercurial Italian striker Mario] Balotelli’s little brother,” said Wynalda, the Silverbacks’ manager. “And you sit with him and explain you’ve got to be smarter, you’re a professional soccer player, you represent more than yourself, and you can’t put yourself in these sort of positions, and he gets it.
“He’s the kind of kid who’s got a long, long way to go, but his starting point is so far ahead of everybody else. I’m not going to give up on him.
Neither is Gary Brunner, FC Santa Clarita’s owner and operations chief, who brought Harlley into the NPSL in 2011, served as a father figure during some particularly trying times, and alerted Wynalda to his talent.
“You fall in love with him,” Brunner said. “He’s such a fun-loving kid, you get the vibration of just happiness. He is so full of life. He’s what I call a magnetic personality.”
He’s a charmer, to be sure, but its his game that has so many scouts thrilled. Harlley’s movement, explosiveness, technical skill and how he uses it are reminiscent of Adebayor. And he looks a little bit like his uncle, too.
Harlley grew up in Lomé, Togo’s oceanside capital, where he lived with his mother — Adebayor’s older sister — and half-brother. His father left for California when he was young, and a plan to bring him over when he was 5 or 6 fell apart, Harlley said, when a family member assigned to manage the paperwork instead pocketed the money for that purpose.
Harlley’s father arranged to bring him to the U.S. when he was 17, and he entered Rosamond High School as a junior — two classes behind his age group — and hooked up with soccer coach Anthony Ramos, who had connections with the Lancaster Rattlers, an NPSL team playing 15 miles to the south.
Harlley made lots of friends in Rosamond — “The time I live in Rosamond, everyone love me, I love everyone,” he says — and was a stud for the soccer team, scoring 45 goals as a senior to lead the Roadrunners to the High Desert League title.
Ramos recommended him to Brunner, and he was soon a regular for the Rattlers, playing up front, as an attacking midfielder and as a defensive midfielder.
“He had a lot of potential, obviously,” said Brunner. “It was kind of like he has the talent, but he was missing maturity. His individual talent was tremendous, but we had to develop him to play as a member of a team.”
The Rattlers went 3-11-0 in 2011, and Brunner moved the team to Santa Clarita, a growing city about 30 miles southwest of Lancaster. With an influx of talent, and Harlley’s growing game, newly minted FC Santa Clarita reached the NPSL playoffs for the first time the following year, with an 8-3-3 mark. Harlley was key again last year, when they went 7-3-4 and just missed the postseason.
“Gary Brunner was the one who tell me like if I want something, I have to work hard for it,” Harlley said. “He always keep on me, every time. … Anytime the team isn’t doing good the right way, he always tell me to keep my head up, keep working.”
After graduating high school, Harlley took a scholarship at national JC powerhouse Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz. He scored 22 goals with 17 assists in 23 games as a freshman in 2012 to lead the Roughriders to the NJCAA Division I final four, but he struggled with the academics — he speaks five languages but didn’t fully grasp some concepts in English, Brunner said — and returned to Southern California wanting to embark on a soccer career.
This led to an estrangement with his father, who emphasized academics, and so Harlley found places to stay with friends in Rosamond, found a job and asked Brunner to help him find a place to play.
Brunner heard Wynalda, a fellow Southern Californian, speak at last year’s NPSL Annual General Meeting, was excited by the former MLS and Bundesliga forward’s philosophy, and told him about Harlley.
Wynalda was intrigued and arranged to have Harlley join a regular Saturday-morning kickaround that includes former U.S. standouts Eddie Lewis and Ante Razov, and “you could tell right away that he was not in particularly great shape, as far as his wind, but every time he got the ball, he did something special.”
Wynalda wanted to see Harlley in a game situation, so he brought him along to a “good men’s tournament” in Las Vegas, and “he won three games in a row for us. It was all the little plays, little stuff that you can’t teach, just making something out of nothing.”
Harlley signed with Atlanta afterward, and it’s been slow-going since. A preseason knee injury knocked him out for more than a month, and when he finally made his debut, in a 4-0 loss at Fort Lauderdale on May 10, he was red-carded after 14 minutes for, Wynalda said, “a dumb play … a dumb foul.”
He worked his way back into Wynalda and his staff’s favor, started getting minutes, and began to blossom.
Harlley came on as substitute in a 5-0 romp over the NPSL’s Chattanooga FC in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup, again in an NASL loss to Minnesota three weeks later, then went the full 90 in the Silverbacks’ spring-season finale, a 3-3 tie with Indy Eleven.
“We used the Open Cup as a platform to get him acclimated to play games,” Wynalda said. “He came in as a sub at Chattanooga, and the first time he got the ball, he literally ran past three people. The guy pulled his hamstring just trying to keep up with him. …
“Bring him into the game, and he’s going to have an immediate impact. He gets the ball, and he’s immediately probing to make something happen.”
The Silverbacks, with Harlley contributing off the bench, then knocked off two MLS clubs — Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids — to reach the Open Cup quarterfinals. He nearly scored against RSL, but John Stertzer cleared his header off the goal line, and he gave a brave performance at right back as Atlanta held off the Rapids despite playing with just eight men, after three red cards, from the 65th minute.
Wynalda said he plans to start Harlley against the Fire. The expectation is Harlley will play a bigger role during the fall season. The hope is he’ll be ready to move up the ladder sooner than later.
“I tell the guys, ‘If you’re still here a year from now, either you did something wrong or I did something wrong,’ ” Wynalda said. “This is a springboard, not a landing pad.”
How high Harlley will launch is up to him.
“I think it’s unlimited for him,” Brunner said. “He could go where he wants, he just has to do the work in order to get the reward that he wants. His success is going to be in direct proportion to his commitment to his sport, to his trade. That’s why I wanted to hook him up with Eric, because Eric can move his [forward].
“I could easily see him going to Europe. His uncle’s there, and I think with the talent that he has — just tremendous talent, and with that personality — I see him easily playing at a higher level than MLS. I very easily see him playing in Europe.”