Harden returns to MLS after taking a charitable timeout
It's not uncommon to see an athlete walk away from their sport, citing that his passion for the game is no longer there. It is just uncommon to see a 23-year-old retire for those reasons.
But the more you learn about Ty Harden, the more you realize that he is anything but common.
It was the first day of preseason preparation in 2008 for the Los Angeles Galaxy and it was a mild February day in Carson, Calif. While the rest of his teammates were getting ready to shake off the cobwebs and take to the field, Harden was meeting with then-general manager Alexi Lalas. Behind closed doors, Harden was telling Lalas that he would not be part of the team this year, that he was quitting soccer.
It all seems a bit puzzling, even now. Harden was coming off a season in which, as a rookie, he was awarded the team's defender of the year. He had a bright future ahead of him and big things were expected of the second-round pick in the 2007 MLS draft. But Harden told Lalas that he had enough. Soccer had stopped being all-consuming for him.
"It was a long and hard decision. I knew that I wanted to go back to school and get my degree," said Harden, who is now a graduate of the University of Washington. "But I also wanted to do more with my life than simply kick a ball."
Harden said that he agonized for several months over what he should do. Even after hernia surgery in November of that year, he continued to press hard to make a full recovery and take the field. He regularly worked on his fitness to make a return. Instead, he headed back north to Seattle to resume classes and get his degree, graduating in August.
He says he found a new passion for school, that his time in MLS helped him appreciate the classroom. Harden estimates his time in the books doubled in his return to college. He also was involved in volunteer work with his girlfriend Emily, a basketball player at Washington. In fact, giving back to others is at his very core.
Both of Harden's parents worked for Goodwill, an organization which provides education and training to the disadvantaged. His father was COO of Goodwill in the Streets, an offshoot of the organization located in Reno, Nev.
"I hate to use the term 'charity,'" Harden said. "For me, it's a lifestyle. My parents instilled in me compassion -- a view of the world that sometimes things happen that are unfair and that people need a hand."
After finishing classes, he went with Emily to Switzerland, where she was playing professionally on the courts in Europe. It was there where Harden learned about Hamomi, a children's center in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. His heart was touched and he signed up to help the school.
Six months earlier, Harden was a professional athlete playing in front of Hollywood celebs. Now, he was working in a third-world slum.
"I am completely impressed by what Ty did. I always encourage people to follow their hearts and Ty certainly did that. We tend to get too caught up in sports and start believing that sports are the most important thing in the world," said former Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan. "What Ty did was much more important than any soccer game will ever be."
At Hamomi, Harden got his hands into just about everything. Beginning at 7:45 a.m., he taught classes to kids who used to live on the streets. These young people came to the school and were taken off the streets by what amount to foster parents. Harden would perform house visits to ensure they were treated well. He created and chronicled a thorough file system to ensure their well being. He explored and priced new property for a new facility.
He also began to play soccer again. Harden set up the school's first soccer team, even arranging some games against other schools. When he arrived in Kenya, he brought soccer balls and equipment with him. In soccer-crazy Nairobi, he could make friends by kicking the ball around.
"Soccer had become a burden," Harden said. "I needed to get away from it. It just felt like I was missing out on things."
Now, Harden was missing out on the comforts of life. The school was basically a series of wooden shacks. The water was filthy at Hamomi and he couldn't drink it. He lived in an apartment that was considered modern by Nairobi's standards, but he still lost power and running water daily.
Harden stayed until the school year was over in December and came back home. His agent, Pat McCabe, had regularly kept in contact with him. One thing led to another, and Colorado traded for his rights. With his love for the game renewed -- Harden said that he missed the competition of being on the field -- Harden was pleased to join what he terms a first-class organization in the Rapids. He's made seven appearances this season despite injuries and is still working his way back into shape.
"Los Angeles wasn't my first choice to go back to, honestly. Bruce Arena has done a great job turning things around, but it was a mess when I was there. I don't think they knew what they were doing," Harden said. " Colorado has been great for me. The locker room -- the guys -- have been great. I couldn't ask for anything more."
Harden has eased back into life in MLS. Though he has struggled with injuries since preseason this year, he feels like he is close to recapturing the form that made him a rising star in 2007. Even if he doesn't, he knows that he will be defined by more than a game. "My parents are strange in that they love what they do and they can't wait to do it," Harden said. "My dad actually loves going to work. I have the same thing in me. I've always loved helping others."
And others love what he is doing too.
"In addition to being world-class athletes, our members are also deeply committed to public service and Ty is a shining example of that commitment," said Bob Foose, executive director of the MLS players union. "We are thrilled to have Ty back in the league this year, and we have no doubt that he will continue to be a tremendous ambassador both on and off the field."
Quote of the week
Sometimes, actions speak louder than words. After scoring the first goal in Los Angeles' 2-1 victory on the road Saturday night against New England, Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan jumped into the arms of teammate David Beckham. The two had been at the center of a monthlong controversy after "critical" comments made by Donovan about the Englishman appeared in a book excerpt. Think things are all right in Galaxy-hood? Los Angeles hasn't lost in six straight games and has vaulted to second place in the Western Conference. The image of Donovan, celebrating in Beckham's arms, spoke volumes.
• Real Madrid scored three times in a 12-minute span to beat D.C. United on Sunday afternoon at FedEx Field.
• In Saturday night's 4-0 win over Chivas USA, Colorado midfielder Pablo Mastroeni scored his first MLS goal in nearly four years.
• With a win over Houston on Thursday night, FC Dallas has won four straight at Pizza Hut Park.
• Having taken only one point in its past three MLS matches, expansion side Seattle has not won in MLS since July 11.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.