NEW YORK — Justin Haak was 11 years old when Major League Soccer announced the addition of New York City FC, and the vision of a professional career near the streets where he discovered the game began to surface for the Manhattan native.
Two years later, he joined NYCFC’s Academy in its inaugural 2015 season. Six years later, Haak signed a Homegrown contract with the MLS team.
“When I joined NYCFC the first year when I was 13, that’s when I knew that I wanted to be a pro and wanted to play for this team,” Haak, now 17, told Pro Soccer USA. “I was super excited because there was only Red Bulls before that, and I was thinking about going there, but it would be like an hour-and-a-half drive every day. So, to have a team closer to my house was great.”
Haak began to adore the game growing up in the East Village, where he trained at Chelsea Piers — although his passion and technical expertise were augmented in a less strict environment.
“In the East Village, really I was just playing with my friends that lived close by to me,” Haak said. “We would go to parks around there, like Thompson Square Park. It wouldn’t be that many of us, maybe six including me – so we’d play three-v-three. Playing pickup definitely made me fall in love with the game more.
“I give a lot of credit to (street soccer). I feel a lot of the best players are always comfortable on the ball, and it comes from just playing freely – pick up games and stuff.”
His family moved further downtown to Brooklyn when he turned 10. From there, Haak had to navigate the route to Queens at least four days a week for training with the Metropolitan Oval academy, where he played before landing in the NYCFC youth program.
“I remember Justin’s early years with the club, when he used to ride his bicycle to the subway station, park it there, then take the subway,” former Academy Director and current U-17s coach Rodrigo Marion said. “Then he would hop on a bus to get to where our Academy team would be training. I even remember the days that he was really sick and he would still show up to the field to be with his teammates.”
Marion knew playing up a year with NYCFC Academy’s U-14s would be good for Haak, and possibly spark an ascension to the first team.
“When he joined NYCFC, he was challenged by playing up and playing against stronger opponents domestically and in international tournaments,” Marion said. “All these circumstances forced Justin to read the game faster and make quicker and smarter decisions with the ball that later helped him prepare to face the big games.”
That big-game preparation was notable in February of 2018, when Haak traveled with NYCFC for a preseason friendly in Mexico against Atlético San Luis. With his long, flowing mane of dark hair and 6-foot frame, Haak sparkled as a second-half substitute to the chants of “Cavani” from local supporters. They delighted in his resemblance to the Uruguayan international, Edinson Cavani.
“I was just a little confused at first,” Haak said about the chorus from the foreign admirers. “I remember having the best feeling ever. There wasn’t really too much pressure because all the fans were supporting me. It was just one of the greatest feelings ever.”
That February friendly in Mexico has since been billed as a public awakening for Haak, but Marion believes the teenager’s ability to execute in high-pressure scenarios began at an international tournament in Bolivia – playing two years up in the U-15 Mundialito Tahuichi.
“We were playing the semifinal against the host team, Tahuichi, and Justin had an outstanding performance in a stadium with 10,000 fans supporting the local team,” Marion said. “Justin scored the opening goal in the beginning of the second half and he was unfazed by the pressure of the home support.”
That adaptability exhibited by Haak in challenging environments is in part the result of growing up in the city, NYCFC academy coach Matt Pilkington said.
“Yes, he definitely has an edge, a little chip on his shoulder. He’s definitely a pretty resilient street kid, and that’s definitely helped him on the field as well,” Pilkington said. “He’s a kid from a very early age that was very focused on being a pro as his sole ambition. He’s the first kid to every practice and often the last to leave. In three years, I don’t think he missed anything.”
In addition to the display south of the border last preseason, Haak revealed his flexibility in a second friendly versus FC Dallas and throughout the season as a frequent invitee to first team training, displaying composure throughout circumstances that might cause anxiety for other athletes at his age.
“I feel like when I moved up to the first team last year and now, officially, this year, the guys on the first team always help you out to be comfortable,” Haak said. “And always tell you instructions and help you as much as they can on the field.
“The biggest difference is the speed of the game. In the Academy, something you do in three touches, the first team will do in one touch. That’s really the biggest adjustment you need to make.”
Haak hasn’t appeared in either of City’s initial two friendlies in Abu Dhabi for the first leg of preseason, but Pilkington said he’s confident Haak will make the necessary adjustment to MLS and be a unique asset for the team.
NYCFC begins the second phase of preseason Tuesday in Orlando with upcoming fixtures against Orlando City SC (Feb. 16) and Minnesota United (Feb. 20).
“He’s very good on both sides of the ball,” Pilkington said of the young midfielder. “It’s rare to find a player who can break the game up when we don’t have the ball and who is comfortable on the ball and initiating build up in the attacks.”
He’s a very big physical power – he is very brave mentally and physically. He will set the tone early on, and I think that’s why he’ll progress to the next level, because he can cope with those demands and he won’t shy away from anything. He comes with an attitude and a point to prove from a humble background in the beginning. I think it makes him a little hungrier.”
Haak also tries to emulate his favorite players in the global game.
“I’m a big Chelsea fan, so I used to watch a lot of Frank Lampard,” Haak said of the former NYCFC Designated Player. “But now I like to watch Casemiro.”
In describing himself, Haak said, “I like to get stuck in for tackles — a lot. One of my favorite things to do is to try to make it difficult for the opponent to try to play their game.”
The occurrence of these interventions is the product of anticipation and physical strength. Haak provides a presence in the middle of the park plus an approach and mentality of a teen from the city.