October 25, 2010 Leave a comment
With the MLS season almost over, DC United will be looking to forget this year in a hurry. Fortunately for them, they have uncovered one of the brightest prospects in recent seasons, maybe since the inception of the MLS. Freddie Shires looks at Andy Najar:
One could be forgiven for stating that the MLS, in its short history, has hardly set the world alight with the amount and overall quality of emerging players it’s exported overseas to more established leagues in recent years.
Examples of such resounding failures like Clint Mathis, Joe-Max Moore and Josh Wolff who have failed to translate their dominance in the US into success across the pond. Their legacies have been put to bed by the likes of Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, all who’ll be familiar names to even the least informed of football fans.
The latest player who could be about to join this list of star exports is none other than D.C. United’s 17-year-old forward, Andy Najar, one of the few bright points of what has been a fairly dismal 2010 campaign for the side that dominated the early years of the league.
Najar, along with his parents and younger brother, moved to the U.S. from his native Honduras 5 years ago, settling in Alexandria, Virginia, where relatives at the time were living. A far cry from his hometown of Santa Cruz, a small rural village in the south of Honduras, boasting a population of just 6,000, Najar immediately set the local high school soccer scene alight, quickly catching the eye of D.C. United academy scouts, who signed him up to their programme after a successful trial for the under-16 team in 2007.
Initially starting out as a right back, Najar rapidly moved up through the club’s developments system, his impressive play earing a promotion to the under-18s, where his skill and attacking nature prompted coaches to move him upfront, a position he has since flourished in. Outstanding goal scoring form on various club youth tours and tournaments, including 5 in 4 games at the U.S. Developmental Academy Finals in Los Angeles, during the summer of 2009, saw Najar earn the opportunity to train with the senior side later on the year.
By this time, the Honduran teenager’s impressive play had clearly caught the eye of the club’s first team coaching staff and, after distinguishing himself as one of the stand out performers during early pre-season training for the 2010 season, Najar signed a guaranteed contract with the side, worth $40,000, and cemented a place as one of 2 home-grown academy players allowed on the 26 man roster for the forthcoming season.
While D.C. United’s 2010 season has been a terrible, with the club sitting bottom of the Eastern conference, Najar’s play has been a revelation and one of few bright spots for the club’s supporters. Head Coach Curt Onalfo was given his marching orders in early August, having only been handed the job in January, though despite the turmoil surrounding him, Najar still sits as the prime candidate to win the end of season Rookie of the Year award, establishing himself as one of the first names on the D.C. United team sheet and scoring 5 goals in 24 games. General consensus amongst coaches, players, and fans alike, is that Najar is now one of the hottest young properties the league has to offer and the most exciting prospect coming out of MLS in years.
A benefactor of the newly introduced “Home-grown” rule, allowing clubs to sign 2 players per season from their academy side to the senior roster, Najar thus bypassed the normal process of being selected by any one of the league’s 16 sides in the MLS draft, and the chance to continue to develop, both as a player and person, close to his family home has clearly been of huge benefit to him.
At just 17, Najar is considerably younger than the majority of players coming into the league out of college and it has to be stressed that he still has a huge amount of untapped potential that could yet be unearthed in the next few years.
Some will inevitably compare him to another of MLS’s past starlets, none other than the enigma that is Freddy Adu, but these comparisons could not be further from the truth.
For a start, the emergence of Adu was met with a vast amount of media hype, which transcended football and overflowed into mainstream media. Adu was labelled by many as the new Pelé, earning various endorsement deals, trials with top European clubs, and a multi-million dollar contract with D.C. United as the 1st pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, making him at the time the highest paid player in the league, all before he had even kicked a ball as a professional.
Najar’s emergence on the other hand has been remarkably low key. There was no fanfare when he made his debut, no media coverage of his promising play at the start of the season, and certainly no big money endorsement deals from the likes of Nike and Gatorade. Instead, if one had put his name to a group of supporters, it most likely would have been met by a collective “Who?”
Furthermore, Adu never produced on the pitch during his 4 seasons in MLS, his time at D.C. United and one season at Real Salt Lake wasn’t great either, a mixture of inconsistent play only met by the odd flash of brilliance. Adu was simply unable to develop technically or physically as a player during his early career, never able to play to his one clear strength that was his undisputed technical prowess, as the diminutive attacking midfielder was often overpowered by his opponents and constantly knocked off the ball.
His transfer to Benfica in 2007 was arguably down to reputation more than anything else, and Adu’s career since his move to Europe has ultimately been an unqualified disaster, met with lack of playing time, poor play, and questions surrounding his work ethic and even his age.
We shall leave the Freddy Adu age dispute for another occasion, but undoubtedly these are not issues that Najar should ever have to worry about. For a start the Honduran has already shown himself to be a genuine quality player during his short time in MLS, displaying clear progress in his game from the start of the season to now, and belying his small 5ft 7in frame with tough physical play when matched up against even the most imposing of defenders. Commitment and work ethic are also not a problem.
As former coach Onalfo was quoted as saying, “The guys really like him (Andy) ’cause they respect him and he’s just a well-grounded kid. He’s also got unbelievable concentration. Usually, young players are focused for a short period of time and then they lose focus and they make errors because of that. Andy very rarely makes errors because of concentration.”
Often deployed on the wing, where his sheer explosiveness and trickery are best put to use, Najar has made a habit of burning defenders throughout MLS with his raw pace and agility, though he has shown enough versatility that he has even been employed as an emergency defensive midfielder on occasions. Strong on the ball with either foot, while possessing acute vision, deft touch, and a wide range of passing, Najar has shown in spells even at his young age that he has the confidence and ability to play the role of a playmaker as an attacking midfielder, impressive in a league where tough physical defensive midfielders dominate and the centre of the field can often become clogged. The rumours of a move however have already started, and reports of a trial at Arsenal once the MLS season ends have been widely reported.
The same clubs that were once interested in Adu, the likes of Inter and AC Milan, Real Madrid etc., allegedly all have their eyes now firmly set on Najar and it will be interesting to see what his future holds in the coming months. A tug of war too could soon be developing between Honduras, the country of his birth, and the United States, whom Najar will soon be eligible to appear for once he inevitably obtains his citizenship. Both have expressed a profound interest in the young starlet, and, though Najar himself remains remarkably coy on the issue, refusing to commit to either nation for now, fans of both countries are crossing their fingers in the hope that theirs will be the national team Najar eventually chooses to represent.
Despite the overseas interest however, many surveying the young career of Najar believe that, for now, a stay in MLS would be most beneficial for the young midfielder, where he can continue to develop with regular first team football. Plenty of American youngsters have voyaged abroad for football in the past, only to discover their chances limited and the football too competitive for their raw playing style (Landon Donovan being a prime example when he moved to Leverkusen.)
Unlike his choice of national team however, Najar has made no secret about which club team he’d eventually like to represent in the future. An avid Real Madrid fan, he’s been quoted as dreaming of one day pulling on the shirt of Los Blancos. While that day may seem a long way from now, what may seem like an overly ambitious dream of Najar’s could one day become a reality if he continues to develop and assert himself on the field the way he has been over the past 10 months. Avoiding the Freddy Adu comparisons, most would agree Najar has the ability to at least enjoy a career comparable to that of some of MLS’s most famous alumni, names such as Dempsey and Donovan, though those more aspiring of fans would be inclined to suggest he could easily surpass their achievements.
Najar certainly has the talent level to one day become a world star from what we have seen in his remarkably short professional career so far, but he still has many years of development ahead of him and a mountain of obstacles to hurdle before that day can ever arrive. For now, we must sit back and wait with baited breath, as the career of Andy Najar is only just beginning.
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