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Nathan Harriel excelling as starting right back in his second season

Harriel took over the starting job the second week of the season and has locked the position down

Jack Verdeur

After taking over as starting right back from Olivier Mbaizo in the second game of the season, Nathan Harriel has proved himself to be a stalwart MLS defender. While a few uncharacteristic mistakes from the Philadelphia Union led to a 2-1 loss at Toronto this weekend, Harriel put in another excellent performance at fullback with 14 duels won, 5 clearances, 5 interceptions, and 8 recoveries.

Going into this season, the Union defense wasn’t one of the areas of the team that looked to be in need of an upgrade. After only allowing 35 goals last season—tied for fourth fewest in the league—the focus, understandably, was on the two incoming DP strikers. But with Mbaizo’s misplay leading to an NYCFC goal in last year’s Eastern Conference Final and another that cost the Union in the season opener against Minnesota United, Jim Curtin turned to Harriel.

Harriel plugged a hole in a ship that was barely leaking, but the upgrade has still been noticeable. He shut down Talles Magno in this season’s rematch against NYCFC, and the Union have only allowed four goals this season, tied for second fewest in the league. Harriel’s individual stats have been impressive as well. So far, he ranks 12th in the league in pressures in the defensive third (60), 12th in blocks (18), and 11th in interceptions (23). He’s also played one fewer game than most of the players ahead of him in those categories.

But the most exciting thing about Harriel is that locking down the right side of the field seems to be his floor, not his ceiling. He hasn’t been as involved in the attack as Mbaizo was last year, but he’s shown that he certainly has the ability to be creative from the fullback position. This year, he’s already hit a gorgeous pass through the NYCFC defense to meet an onrushing Daniel Gazdag at the far post, and, last season, he picked out a cross to set up a game-winning header from Paxten Aaronson (not exactly the league’s biggest target) against FC Cincinnati.

Harriel also has another tool in his toolbox—his ability in the air. When he jumps, it looks like his boots are spring-loaded. Jack Elliott and Jacob Glesnes are dominant aerial presences in the Union back line, with their size giving them a significant advantage over opposing attackers. Harriel is only 5’10’’—compared to Elliot at 6’6’’ and Glesnes at 6’2’’—but he has also become an aerial force in his own right. He consistently wins headers in the defensive third and has even shown flashes of danger on attacking set pieces. I hope the Union coaching staff is showing Harriel film of the USMNT’s Weston McKennie, because he has the skills to become a similar kind of goal-scoring threat off dead ball situations.

Harriel has plenty of potential. He has a good long throw-in (probably aided by the Union’s sessions with famed thrown-in coach Thomas Gronnemark). He has some positional flexibility with the ability to play left back and even slip in as a part of a three-man center back set-up like he did against Montreal. But above all, he obeys Jim Curtin’s first commandment: play solid defense. As long as he keeps doing that, he’ll be the starting right back for the Union. And if his game continues to grow, he could be the next Union homegrown to garner interest from abroad.