On Friday, August 16, the New York Red Bulls II signed Harrison High School’s all-time leading scorer, Omar Sowe, to a professional soccer contract which will go into effect pending approval from both the league and federation.

The team, which serves as the reserve side of the Major League Soccer franchise and plays out of Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ, competes in the USL Championship – the second division of U.S. Soccer.

Photo: New York Red Bulls

Sowe, who is 19, was a member of the Red Bulls Academy this past year. On the organization’s Under-18 team he made appearances in 15 different matches, starting in 10 of them, and racked up nine goals. He also made appearances for New York Red Bulls Under-23, the fully amateur side of the organization that competes in USL League Two, including the team’s two games in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Tournament. He even scored a goal in the first round of the competition against Morristown, NJ semi-professional side FC Motown before also making his shot in the subsequent penalty kick shootout that helped advance the team through to the next round.

By signing a professional contract Sowe will be forgoing his eligibility to play in college, though he is excited for the opportunity to play close to home in an environment he’s all too familiar with. 

“Five years ago I was at the stadium like any other kid, watching the games, going crazy,” said Sowe in the Red Bulls official announcement. “Now there’s an opportunity for me to be playing for Red Bulls, it’s a dream come true.”

Sowe did more than just watch from the stands in recent years. One of the yearly traditions Harrison High has developed has been playing a game at Red Bull Arena during the early regular season. In 2018 when Harrison played rival Kearny High at the venue for the first time in four years, Sowe started the game and even assisted on the Blue Tide’s lone goal in the 3-1 loss. 

Harrison High School athletic director Kimberly Huaranga said that she and the rest of the department are proud of Sowe’s journey and hope to see him continue to succeed.

“I am extremely proud of Omar and can’t wait to watch him play at the professional level,” she said in an email. “We are all proud to have a Harrison athlete playing for our hometown MLS Organization.”

After his family moved to Harrison from Gambia when he was young, Sowe has grown up around and with soccer. He, in a large family with five siblings, grew up a Red Bull fan and practiced constantly outside in nearby parks and fields.

“When you come from Harrison, it’s all about soccer,” Sowe said in a recent interview with The Observer newspaper. “I love being from Harrison. When you’re around good people all the time, it makes things like this easy. The community around me was a big part of who I am today. I owe so much to Harrison. It’s a great hometown. When I make it, I feel like we all made it. I’ve learned so much from the great people of Harrison. From my standpoint, all of Harrison has made it. The town is really special.”

Sowe’s former head coach at Harrison, Mike Rusek, who has headed the program for 20 years, says that Omar has been one of, if not the, best players he’s ever had the chance to coach and notes how much the area helped him develop. The forward is the first player to ever go pro under Rusek and the first to do so from Harrison High in over 40 years.

“My first thought is what took the Red Bulls so long,” Rusek joked during a phone interview. “Over (my) 20 years, Omar has been the best offensive player that we’ve ever coached. He’s a big strong kid but he grew up in what’s called the Harrison Courts (a small sided soccer field in the center of the town). Playing there he developed a nice, soft touch… he’s got skill.”

Rusek also noted that on a team that is predominantly Hispanic, over the past near decade the Sowe family have become a staple of the program. While his older brother Modou was playing for the Blue Tide, Omar would help the team as a ball boy during practices and games. Knowing that he played soccer with nearby Kearny Thistle, a youth club whose coaches included Jimmy Harkes, the brother of former U.S. Men’s National team member John Harkes, Rusek knew he wanted to have him on the team.

During his four years at the school and despite starting his career as a defender for two seasons, he scored 89 goals and made 67 assists, both new records for the program, while also earning NJSCAA All-State selection on two separate occasions. He was also awarded Section 2 Player of the Year honors for the 2018 season. 

His talent brought with it offers from other high schools and even colleges. In particular, Rusek recalls in the fall of his junior year that St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, a school with a notable and well-regarded athletic program, began contacting Sowe hoping to have him play. Knowing that going there would squash any chance he had to play with RBNY’s academy, since the school works closely with the Cedar Star Academy soccer program, Rusek and his staff helped Omar get in contact with the New York Red Bulls developmental team and got him into a few practices. 

Photo: Bob Larson / TheCup.us

“Right from day one he came back to us after practices and said ‘this is going really well,’” Rusek explained. “They had him practicing with the 17 year-olds and then they had him up with the 18 years olds. Before you know it they had him going everywhere… Basically Thanksgiving of (2018) he became a Red Bull player and here it is, August, and he’s already signed a contract.

Sowe isn’t the first from his family to attract professional soccer interest as well. Modou was reportedly also on professional team’s radars when he graduated from Harrison in 2014. He instead went on the play soccer in-state at Rowan University where he is currently entering his final season – even making the ESPN Top Ten once in October 2018 for an impressive bicycle kick goal against Haverford College. Even more still, the third Sowe boy, Mustapha, is entering his junior season with the Blue Tide.

As someone Rusek can describe as good teammate, a comedian, and a leader, the veteran coach also knows Sowe has qualities that go beyond his talent on the field. 

“He’s a true high school soccer player, he’s a true local kid,” Rusek said. “(My brother and I) looked at him when he was entering high school and we said to ourselves ‘This kid’s a winner.’ We’ve been coaching for 20 years – you see a lot of different types of soccer players… There’s a certain quality, we’ve only seen it a few times in our 20 years, where you say ‘this kid is a winner.’ He doesn’t go out to play soccer to have fun.

“Every time he goes out on the field he’s going out to win,” he continued. “He’s a good hearted kid and we’re just really proud of him. If I was growing up at the same time as him I’d want to be his friend because its always gonna be a lot of laughs. But when it comes down to playing that soccer game he always has risen to the occasion with us.”

The local’s first chance to win near home at Montclair won’t come until September 13 when the team plays the Charlotte Independence. In the meantime, the second-place team in the USL-C’s Eastern Conference will be on a three-game road trip starting with a match on August 21 against Nashville SC.

“He’s in their system,” Rusek said, talking about how recently Omar had taken part in a friendly scrimmage with the Army men’s soccer team in Whippany, NJ with other RBNY players like Bradley Wright-Phillips. “He’s in that elite group where the coaches are going to notice him every day and the other players, especially some of the top-notch players, are going to be playing with him at practices. We’re hoping that the exposure is going to be an advantage to him.”

Rusek thinks that being in a system this close to both home and the rest of the Red Bulls organization is going to help Sowe keep that fast pace rise going even as he starts his professional career. 

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