Watching Jack Hallahan roam the soccer pitch is, simply put, mesmerizing.
He dances through opposing defenses, weaving in and out of crevices not usually traversed. His feet control the ball so smoothly the defense might as well be on ice, gliding left with one foot then dragging back across with the other. Give him an inch of separation and he’ll rifle in crosses that find teammates with magnetic precision.
When it’s all said and done, Hallahan will go down in history as one of the best to ever wear the Michigan soccer uniform. How did he get to this point? To best understand his brilliance, one ought to retrace the steps of his winding soccer journey.
It’s a story that all starts with a five-year-old blonde boy across the pond.
Redditch, England, is crazed for soccer — it’s no different than any other English town in that sense. Most of its 110,000 residents live and breathe the sport they call “football.” By the time he turned five, Hallahan was one of them.
“It’s not like in America where you have a choice to play ice hockey, basketball or American football,” Hallahan said. “It’s more just like that’s where you go to meet people, to make friends. It’s the main sport, so it’s a social thing.”
Hallahan’s entry into soccer may have been for social purposes, but the game soon grew to encompass much more. Like any other child, Hallahan fantasized over his boyhood idols, reading books on Liverpool star Steven Gerrard off the pitch and attempting to emulate Gerrard’s play at center midfield on it.
Not every soccer-playing English schoolboy, though, is scouted by Aston Villa at the age of eight.
“That was just the first indication that I was pretty good,” Hallahan said. “That I could really compete.”
While an opportunity at Aston Villa never materialized, it didn’t take long for other clubs to catch on to Hallahan’s talent. West Bromwich Albion discovered Hallahan a few years later and, freshly into double-digits, 11-year-old Hallahan aced his tryout, signing with the academy team.
In his first game against Cardiff City, Hallahan scored a goal. For the first time, he felt established as a soccer player.
Hallahan would play in West Brom’s youth academy for seven years, receiving his first taste of a professional soccer environment.
“It was massive,” Hallahan said. “You’re around really talented players. There’s a lot of competition going on, so that really brought out the best in you. It was both challenging and fun at the same time.”
The stint at West Brom gave Hallahan’s raw talent a formidable avenue for development. What came calling next, though, really proved that he had the potential to be special.
Hallahan’s mother, Michelle, is English. His father, Will, is Irish.
When it came to the possibility of representing a national team, only one country beckoned.
“I never got a call from England, but I just kept playing,” Hallahan said. “But then Ireland called me up and I was like, ‘Wow, it’s a great opportunity. I have to go for it.’ ”
Despite being raised in England, Hallahan had always been proud of his Irish heritage. Playing for the U-18 and U-19 national teams allowed him to, for the first time, fully embrace it.
“Me playing for Ireland, it really brought together two sides of the family,” Hallahan said. “I have a lot of family out there, and it was brilliant to be able to represent them.”
In 2014, Hallahan debuted for the U-18 team, playing two friendlies against the Czech Republic and scoring a goal in the second one. As a member of the U-19 squad, he notched two goals in two games against Azerbaijan and also appeared in other international friendlies against Sweden and Mexico. In the UEFA Euro U-19 qualifiers, Hallahan’s play was instrumental in the team’s run into the knockout rounds.
International experience provided Hallahan a global perspective on the sport, broadening his horizons beyond the English playing field.
“Ireland, they’re grinders,” Hallahan said. “There’s probably less talent than England’s national team, but there’s some real grinding lads who put in a lot of hard work. It certainly brought out a different side of my game, more of a team effort than a bunch of individuals.”
Michigan associate coach Tommy McMenemy first caught wind of Jack Hallahan thanks to a tip from a connection he had in England. The colleague reached out to McMenemy to tell him about a talented soccer player who was seeking a different opportunity, someone eager for a fresh start after years in the grueling English soccer system.
McMenemy, serving as Michigan’s recruiting coordinator at the time, proceeded as he normally did when tipped off on a recruit — he watched game film and did some research on Hallahan’s make-up and academic intentions.
Immediately, he was sold.
He booked a flight to England to watch Hallahan play in person. He still recalls the potential he saw. The game just came naturally to Hallahan. Yet what impressed McMenemy more than his skill was his play style — his grit, his determination, his drive.
“College soccer sometimes isn’t very friendly to talented players who want to be comfortable,” McMenemy said. “But when I watched Jack play, he had a very competitive edge underneath the skull that I thought would hold him well in the college game.”
McMenemy, of course, speaks from experience. Fifteen years earlier, he had been in Hallahan’s shoes himself, daring to test the collegiate soccer waters at Columbia while leaving behind his English career and his hometown of Southampton. McMenemy recognized that Hallahan possessed the persona and work ethic imperative to flourish on the college scene.
“He just had an appreciation for what America could offer him,” McMenemy said. “He’s from a very hardworking family. When I went over to recruit him, actually he was working a shift at the local pub. So I knew he wasn’t afraid to put the work in, to have some humility about him.”
At the time, Hallahan was considering numerous big time soccer programs in America. Michigan’s wealth of opportunities beyond athletics made Ann Arbor the prohibitive favorite as a landing spot.
“It was just a great school academically, and the football program was on the rise,” Hallahan said. “I had a great relationship with (Michigan coach Chaka Daley) and Tommy, they were very personable. It felt like a good place to call home for the next four years.”
In general, leaving a soccer hotbed like England to come play in the United States, where soccer is less culturally-ingrained, might appear to be an odd move. But in England, Hallahan’s career was at a crossroads, and collegiate soccer presented itself as the best window to grow both as a player and person.
It didn’t take long for Hallahan to realize that he made the right decision.
“At first, I didn’t really have the bigger picture of what the soccer would be like,” Hallahan said. “But when I came in, I was pleasantly surprised by how good a lot of the players were, how accomplished a lot of my teammates were. It was a nice fit, honestly straight away.”
Though he received significant playing time as a freshman, Hallahan’s ascension into collegiate stardom truly began his sophomore season. Over his last three seasons, Hallahan has been one of the most prolific players in the Big Ten and the lynchpin of Michigan’s success.
“You’ve seen a young lad, you know, maybe lacking some confidence, turn into a young man that wants the ball in big moments and big games,” McMenemy said. “And that’s all you can ask from a young player in his junior, senior year.”
Hallahan is set to end his Michigan career as one of the most-decorated players in school history. He is the first Wolverine to win first-team All-Big Ten honors in three consecutive seasons, and captured Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year as a junior in 2018. With 73 career points, he holds the second-highest point-total in Michigan men’s soccer history.
Hallahan, though, doesn’t spend too much time focusing on his personal accolades.
“If we’re losing or he’s not having a good day, you can see Jack kind of roll up his sleeves and get a look in his eye,” McMenemy said. “He wants to win, he wants to win now and he wants to play his best football. When that’s not happening, you can see him go through the gears to make it happen. He’s got a real winning mentality.”
It should be no surprise, then, that Hallahan considers his proudest moment at Michigan to be when the team won the Big Ten his sophomore season. Or that his favorite goal is not his flashiest, but rather one in a game last year against Maryland that helped seal the team’s NCAA Tournament berth.
“I just love helping the team accomplish the things we deserve,” he said.
Hallahan isn’t exactly sure what he wants to do with his life post-college — he only knows he has a steadfast desire for soccer to be a part of it.
Whatever direction he goes in, McMenemy knows Hallahan will be well-prepared. Rebuking a common stereotype of a student-athlete, Hallahan — an economics major with a piqued interest in psychology — is well-devoted to his studies.
“He’s just really embraced the academic side of Michigan,” McMenemy said. “It’s never been an issue with him. He’s taken advantage of all the opportunities Michigan has to offer. Just a great example of what we want in a student-athlete.”
For now, though, Hallahan’s time as an athlete at Michigan is winding down toward its inevitable end. The Wolverines open play in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday against Wright State, each game possibly Hallahan’s last donning the maize and blue.
When the time ultimately comes, Hallahan will leave his legacy at Michigan behind and move on to the next step of his soccer journey. Michigan, though, is a stop he will not soon forget.
“I’ve loved it,” Hallahan said. “It’s an experience I’ll remember forever.”