Ten MLS seasons. Six different clubs. Over 200 appearances for club and country.
FC Dallas defender Atiba Harris has certainly seen it all when it comes to North American soccer. At age 30, though, he is now tackling a brand new challenge and handling it with aplomb.
Thrust into the right-back position upon his return to Dallas prior to the 2015 season, the man who has spent much of his career at midfield and forward has looked like right at home while holding down the right back position for an MLS contender.
Dallas sport an 8-1-2 record and an impressive .55 goals-against-average with Harris on the right side of their backline. And now that he is in his second stint in Frisco, as one of just a handful of remaining players from the 2010 squad that went to the MLS Cup Final, the 30-year-old admits that he still has some unfinished business to cap off.
“I’m not going to lie, I think about it all the time,” Harris said of the team’s second-place finish five years ago. “As a professional, you want to win championships. You don’t want to spend your whole career playing games and then that’s it.”
The 2010 trip to the MLS Cup final is one of four postseason trips in Harris’ journeyman career – a career that has consisted of four trades, one Expansion Draft selection, and a Re-Entry Draft selection.
“If you know the league, you know it’s not my decision to bounce around the league,” Harris told MLSSoccer.com. “But I’m happy to be back here in Dallas.”
One reason the 30-year-old Harris is happy to be back is because of his family’s familiarity with the city. Now the father of three young daughters, being closer to his native country, the Caribbean island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, and some familiar faces made his sixth MLS team-change more bearable.
“The kids are still kind of young, so it’s a little bit easier,” said Harris, whose oldest daughter is four years old. “I think it’s more stressful on my wife having to get up and move and meet new friends. I have friends in the locker room and guys all around the league. So I can always hang out with my teammates. But I think it’s difficult for not just mine, but for other players’ wives around the league.”
Family also plays a key role in Harris’ international career, where he has led the 120th-ranked Sugar Boyz for over a decade, becoming their captain and leading scorer. With the country boasting a population of just under 55,000, it’s always a grind for Harris & Co., who haven’t qualified for a Caribbean Cup since 2001 and were recently eliminated from World Cup qualiying, 6-3 on aggregate, by El Salvador. Harris scored the team’s lone goal in a 4-1 loss in El Salvador.
The struggle for results and recognition internationally does nothing to dampen his drive or desire traits that have served him well no matter where he plays.
“Going up there, you have to fight for everything,” Harris said of the challenges he and his compatriots face on the international stage. ”It’s always an honor to play for my national team. It doesn’t matter if it’s win, lose, tie or whatever. I’m just going to go out there and represent my country because I’m playing not just for me, I’m playing for my family as well.”
Back in Dallas, Harris took his new role in stride, which was not easy after playing in a more offensive role through most of his career.
“It is hard, but I do really think Atiba embraces whatever you ask him to do because of his professionalism, approach to the game and commitment to his teammates and team,” said head coach Oscar Pareja, who also coached Harris in 2013 when both were with the Colorado Rapids. “I like those kinds of players where you can count on them in positions that you need.”
And to his coach, it’s Harris’ professional nature that is the key to his staying power.
“Solidness. Matureness. A player who is accountable all the time. The experience that Atiba has in the league,” Pareja said. “All of those are very valuable elements that he has.”
To Harris, the transition is not as drastic as it seems on paper. While his new role has taken away the scoring opportunities he once saw more frequently, Dallas’ aggressive attack and counterattack actually puts Harris in some familiar positions.
“The way we play, it helps me. I get to go forward a lot,” Harris said. “Coaches give me the freedom to go forward, so making that late run is important and helps me.”
Even though the shots and goals have not come this season – no goals on 11 shots – the club is reaping the benefits of Harris’ conversion, starting in seven of the club’s eight shutouts this season.
“That’s a very positive stat,” Pareja said. “When you see players that are consistent on the results and see how they get points, there’s a mentality that is transmitted to the other [players].”
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