There’s a myriad of ways to spend a Saturday morning as a youngster. You could jet straight to YouTube for a few laughs. You could binge-watch Netflix all-day. You could even wax idiotic over the Ronaldo-Messi debate. But for a college student, only some of these options are plausible. Some use their Saturday for rest, laundry, that dreaded 8 a.m. class, and there’s the lucky lot that gets to sleep in. But for Zahmyre Harris, Saturday morning means training.
Zahmyre started his football story at three-years-old in Texas. At age 10, he relocated to Georgia and continued with the sport he loved and kept at it through high school. When he was playing in the U-17 ranks he was training with Georgia United (before they became Atlanta United). That summer, the club announced they would be holding tryouts for their academy. Just a day before the tryout, Zahmyre was playing in a High School All-Star game (not knowing he’d be invited by the club to tryout). In high school, he scored 54 goals and 27 assists in his career earning him All-Conference, All-Region, and Offensive Player of the Year honors. With an illustrious set of numbers to lead him to such a pinnacle in his career, I felt his frustration as he explained why he couldn’t make it. An opponent kicked through his shinguard during the All-Star match and fractured his shin (leaving him unable to run). Luckily, he had college offers on the table and taking the collegiate route would give him time to rehab and earn a degree.
Fast forward to today, Zahmyre is a sophomore at Georgia Southwestern State University where he’s enjoying his football (starting 10 of 11 matches). Traditionally a striker, his collegiate responsibilities have found him at left back/left wing. “They like left backs to attack so I’ve been developing the skills to add defense to my game so I can play anywhere on the field. I’m happy at left back.” He wanted to stay in-state to play college ball and GSWU afforded him that opportunity.
As far as his preferred professional league, he’s a big-time advocate for our domestic league Major League Soccer. “Atlanta United” he boasted when asked his favorite club. He actually prefers MLS over the more popular names like the Premier League (England) and La Liga (Spain). “With so many players in MLS that I’ve played with and people I keep in touch with, MLS is more relatable.” It’s not too often you hear about the powerhouses from overseas playing second fiddle to the U.S. but his choice of player favorites alluded to the fact that he does indeed watch. “I like Marcelo (Real Madrid) and I’m starting to like Leroy Sané (Manchester City). They’re both left-footed and left-wingers.”
Learning of young domestic talent who prefer Major League Soccer before the Premier League would certainly make U.S. fans happy. The age-old formula of “they have to play overseas to get noticed/developed” is starting to wither. “I’m open to playing anywhere but I’d really love to play here (Atlanta). Growing up here, I’d love to play and represent the city. I feel like we have so much talent coming through our youth systems in Atlanta that there’s no reason to go anywhere else.”
In its 24th season, MLS has seen major growth in recent years. Viewership is the highest its ever been and the league has expanded to a whopping 24 clubs with FC Cincinnati as the latest addition. Zahmyre sees this kind of growth as not just a positive sign, but as an incentive. “The only difference between MLS and leagues worldwide is that the rest of the world is trying to play the same style. Some clubs are playing their own way in MLS. I hate to keep coming back to Atlanta United so much but what they’re doing is beyond the status quo. I feel like some clubs are more developed than others, but once they all get on the same page it’ll be a league that people look forward to playing in and watching as well.”
Even though he’s only 20 years of age, Zay (as he likes to be called) boasts an air of confidence and maturity that lets you know he’s ready for the next level. When he’s conversing with friends who’ve joined the professional ranks he’s always listening, learning, and taking mental notes. Growing mentally as well as physically is a crucial part of progressing to the next level.
I shifted his attention to the U.S. National team as I wanted to get his thoughts on how the landscape has changed. When I was young there were no black players on the squad. Compare that to their current look and it shows why representation is so important. “I feel like it’s a good thing for the national team to accurately reflect the look of the country,” he said confidently. “It’s interesting because when I was younger, maybe 11, the national team was extremely diverse but the senior team would never be that way.”
The biggest challenge has always been getting youth into the sport and keeping them involved. The challenges that come with being a child of color stacked with the ever-looming economic disparities that exist make growth in the youth ranks a challenge. “A lot of players who have better opportunities now have that because of finances. It wasn’t always a racial thing. When I was younger I called soccer ‘a rich man’s sport.’ If you don’t have the money to play for the best clubs you’re not getting as much as a player that wants to play but doesn’t have the money. But sometimes it wasn’t the money. Even if I had somebody that could drive me three hours away to go play for better clubs that could’ve helped. Money and race both have a hand in the difficulty of getting opportunities but I feel like it’s a lot easier to prove that it’s economical than to just say it’s racial.”
Let’s pivot back to national team duty because Zay just recently got his first call up to the senior team. “It’s a blessing! It’s definitely motivating and extremely humbling,” he stated with glee. With his mom being American and his dad hailing from St. Croix, Zay opted to represent that little slice of U.S.-Caribbean paradise known as the U.S. Virgin Islands. In just the short time he’s played for the senior squad he’s already learned a lot. “It’s motivation to continue to get better and I can see where I need to improve. Being young and 20, playing against players in the Premier League, it just shows me I have a lot to do in order to grow and get better.”
Their next national team camp is Feb. 23. It’s a momentous occasion because they’re having their first training on the island since 2017 when two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes ravaged the U.S. territory. Harris would always train in the states as a child, but now as a member of the senior team, he’s looking forward to training at “home.” Their next opponent will be Anguilla in late March as part of the CONCACAF Nations League.
The young baller spoke highly of the Federation and applauded their efforts in improving the tournaments. “In previous years a lot of people didn’t respect CONCACAF as much as they do UEFA Nations League and other tournaments but things are changing. In the next few years, CONCACAF is gonna be a problem! Within the youth, there are some big youth players that are playing down there and things are turning around and getting serious. I really appreciate the Federation taking the time to make it serious. Years ago that’d be a joke. But for all the work they’ve put in to make it how it is now, I really respect and appreciate that.”
Atlanta is sitting on a goldmine of talent and as more youngsters take notice of the world’s most popular sport, more investment will go into it. As big as America is, there’s no reason to believe we don’t have a handful of Ronaldos and Messis just waiting to be discovered.
You can follow Zay’s international adventure and the U.S. Virgin Islands during CONCACAF Nations League.
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