Cameron Harper of the New York Red Bulls always saw himself as an attacking midfielder.
The California native and son of Scottish parents, he turned down a chance to play college soccer at UCLA in 2018 to play for his boyhood club, Celtic — one of Scotland’s most recognizable and successful teams.
“I was able to develop really well when I was there and that was the team I supported growing up,” Harper told amNewYork. “That was a big achievement for me to be seen as a big prospect there.”
Rising through the ranks of their academy, he made a first-team debut in 2021 when the club was riddled with COVID. But it turned out to be his only. Less than two months later, he was transferred to the Red Bulls
“I came here with pretty high hopes, he began. “It didn’t go as planned, at least for me personally.”
He struggled to catch on to the first team at his natural position, splitting time between MLS and Red Bulls II — New York’s reserve team — while dealing with injury issues that limited him to just 33 games over two seasons. Seventeen of them came in MLS last season, but he averaged just 45 minutes per match while recording two goals and two assists.
But former manager Gerhard Struber, who saw Harper’s pace as an alluring option on the backline, approached him about playing as a right-wingback, which is a defender that jumps up to support the attack on the outside. While Struber has left, Harper has stuck with the first team, starting 23 of 27 MLS appearances while accruing a career-high 2,001 minutes.
Most of them have come as a wingback, but current Red Bulls manager Troy Lesesne still calls on him every once in a while to take on that outside No. 10 role in New York’s midfield.
“I had to redefine myself in terms of the way I broke into the team last year,” Harper said. “The first place was at wingback. I had never played wingback. When I looked at my attributes and I see my strengths, they fit really well toward being versatile and being able to play multiple positions because of my pace. I think I’m quite coachable and I try to take on as much information as I possibly can.
“If I wasn’t able to play those positions, maybe I played five, six games less. Hopefully, it puts comfort in the mind of the coach that if there’s a position that he needs me to fill in, he has the trust to put me there.”
With it comes the confirmation that the 21-year-old can stick around in MLS, which is a notion that didn’t come as easy to him last year after a turbulent start with New York.
“I doubted my ability a little bit,” he admitted. “Throughout the course of this year, I realized that I can hang at this level. I need to have confidence in myself and I think this year I’ve gained that… I went from doubting whether I can make it to now, I’m confident that I belong here and I can be a key contributor.”
Harper made his biggest contribution yet this season on Saturday night in a 5-3 win over DC United where he returned to his midfield spot, recording a goal and an assist to help keep the Red Bulls’ playoff hopes alive. With four games remaining in the regular season, they’re three points out of ninth place in the Eastern Conference, which is the final playoff spot.
“The fact that we’ve kept ourselves in contention while not having the best of luck is bringing good energy for the players,” Harper said. “It’s do-or-die for every game now. Every game, we realize it’s a must-win.”