Player Profiles – Andy Najar

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.

Najar signs lucrative deal at DC United

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.

Much Adu about nothing: Najar different to last DC wonderkid

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.)

Bernabeu bound? Najar the next Galactico?

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.

Follow Freddie on Twitter @fshires for more superb analysis of the MLS

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World Cup Preview – The Last 16

Well, so far, the World Cup has seen many talking points, arguably most off the field. The mass hysteria over the flight of the Jabulani football and the whurring of mutant bees around the grounds courtesy of that old friend, the vuvuzela. The French threatening a mutiny and also who could forget Robbie Earle selling his 36 tickets ( he had 400 in total for the tournament) for the Holland Denmark game to some lovely Dutch ladies. This World Cup has set a precedent for outrageous moments.

We’ve had some great footballing moments in a World Cup apparently littered with terrible games if you believe the pundits. But this only makes it more fascinating, some of the ‘dull’ games have been great tactical battles, others have been exactly that: dull (England Algeria, France Uruguay being the 2 main examples). At the end of the day, if you are a pundit moaning at getting paid for being at a World Cup, then you need to re-assess how much of a prat you are.

Some sides have fascinated, others have fallen flat at the first hurdle. Underdogs have shined in South Africa as well. New Zealand were unbeaten in the group stage but faced an flight back to Auckland whilst Italy became a country for Old Men after they finished bottom of Group F. Switzerland’s tight defensive unit defeated the pre-tournament champions elect, Spain and Germany once again proved their tournament mettle with some convincing displays. And of course El Diego’s faith in Saint Martin Palermo was proved right after he scored a goal. I honestly didn’t predict that.

Half the fun of this tournament has been the off-screen stuff (such as watching Diego Maradona waltz around in a rather fetching monochrome number) but we now reach crunch-time. The Last 16.

Throughout the years, we’ve had some unbelievable ties and this year will hopefully be no different. So here’s my look at the fixtures and how I see them panning out. (Editors Note: Chris Mayer is often wrong, he thought Italy would shock people this year, but not in the way they did)

Uruguay vs South Korea

Uruguay came out as winners of Group A, after some great performances notably against hosts South Africa. The draw against France was forgettable but they improved as the group wore on and look a very good side. Diego Forlan’s form has been sensational but other players have impressed me. Luis Suarez adopted a Pippo Inzaghi role, and was constantly offside against France but grabbed the winner against Mexico. They’ve also yet to concede a goal in the groups, but as we know things get tougher from here on in. Diego Godin and Nicolas Fucile have both been impressive at the back and were responsible for several clearances in the opening game. Midfielder Egidio Arevalo has also tough tackled in the midfield. I really rate this side.

South Korea finished runners-up in Group B, with the easy win over Greece being decisive in progression. They were taken apart by the glorious attacking football of Argentina however and just about got a draw against Nigeria. They’ve looked fairly tight throughout the group, minus one incident and the midfield has done a superb job in getting South Korea here. Ji-Sung Park, Park Chu Young and Kim Sung Yeung have all put in hard graft and provide the attacking threat that saw them score 5 goals in the groups. The defence was ripped apart in the last two games really and I think that will be their undoing here.

Prediction – 2-1

USA vs Ghana

A fixture that’s bound to have split loyalties for former wonder kid Freddy Adu. The US lumbered to the group winners spot after a late goal by the perennial Landon Donovan once again showing his talent. They made hard work of Algeria and Slovenia but their performance against England was fairly solid. I fear for their defence who were excellent against England but poor against Slovenia. The stand out players so far have been Donovan and Bradley.

Ghana finished runners up in Group D but weren’t entirely convincing either. They were great against Serbia, failed to capitalise on 10 men Australia and showed promise against Germany. One thing is clear, Asamoah Gyan has got them this far. He’s a great striker and has shone on the biggest stage. Ghana’s opening game performance was brilliant and they stunned Serbia with their passing and all-round better teamwork. Kevin Prince Boateng has played a blinder as well.

Tough one to call this but I think the US will edge it.

Prediction – 1-0

Germany vs England

The Battle of Bloemfontein. Every superlative possible will be used in the build-up to this mammoth clash. Even Franz Beckenbauer has been mud-slinging in the past few days. England wouldn’t have wanted this tie as early as it has arrived and are slight underdogs for me. They haven’t performed at all well in the group and even the Slovenian performance didn’t impress me despite being a marked improvement. The team hasn’t gelled well unlike the Germans who hit the ground running against Australia. However they aren’t one of the favourites and that performance was aided by a Pim Verbeek tactical meltdown.

Germany are beatable, but not for the reasons I’ve seen (weak centre back pairing). Mesut Ozil has been a revelation, hey I tipped him to do well beforehand, but other players have excelled as well, notably Friedrich, Muller and the international men of mystery, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose.

I could probably do a blog about this game alone now I think about it, but the key area for me is who is going to stalk Ozil. Also if service to Klose is limited then, England could win this.

I don’t see it happening on the basis of what’s come before

Prediction – 2-0 (realistic result, if you want a outrageous patriotic one then 5-1 ENGLAND 😉

Argentina vs Mexico

This match is the one I’m most looking forward to, without being incredibly tense throughout. Both sides were the group stage pioneers in terms of fluid attacking football. Argentina boast world class talent in their front-line whilst Mexico’s team built up impressively from the back.

Argentina destroyed the rest group pretty much with the arsenal of Messi, Tevez, Higuain and others. But they weren’t without fault. The right hand side of the defence looked very ropey, particular Jonas Gutierrez, who isn’t a right back. Martin Demichelis had his moments of absolute idleness against South Korea, and he’ll hope that it doesn’t happen again.

Mexico looked reasonably strong at the back, especially off the ball which allows Rafael Marquez to support the centre backs, making them a fortress difficult to penetrate. Gio Dos Santos has been quite good too, making me wonder whether he could hack it at Spurs.

This will come down to Veron for me. If he’s on form, Argentina will walk this game. If not they may need extra time. I’ll plumb for the former option.

Prediction – 3-1

The Netherlands vs Slovakia

Well this was a minor turn up for the books. Not for Holland, they were expected to win the group but they’ve not exactly set the world alight. It took them a while to break down all three teams, and I think without Arjen Robben they lack pace and width. The turn around against Denmark came through young winger Eljero Elia and that injection of raw energy broke the Danish stronghold on the game. If Robben is back, I think Holland will motor and it worries me that they haven’t hit their peak yet.

Slovakia have blossomed. They were woeful against New Zealand and Paraguay. But against Italy they looked a much better outfit, mainly because of the shuffling of the team allowing Marek Hamsik to do what he does best and move further forward, becoming a real threat in the process. Robert Vittek was also impressive against the aging Italian stallions.

I feel Holland have enough to see off Slovakia. It’s a question of whether the Slovakian defence can handle pace, and I don’t think they can. Still this tournament has proved a great one for them.

Prediction – 2-0

Brazil vs Chile

This mouth-watering South American clash will indeed see a clash of styles. Brazil have become a tough defensive machine under fashionista Dunga whereas Chile are clearly gung-ho under Bielsa. Bit unfair on Brazil as they can turn on the style at will but in my opinion, Lucio and Felipe Melo are the representatives of their new defensive style. No nonsense possession football. Their group was tough and they are fully prepared for the knockouts. The Ivory Coast game showed their prowess for goalscoring.

Chile are without doubt my favourite team at this World Cup. The only team to use the 3-3-1-3 formation. Fluid counter attack style football make them a menacing side. But they will need to cut out the bad tackling, which like the Spain game will be forced by them as they press the Brazillians. The best players for Chile so far have been Alexis Sanchez and Mark Gonzalez, both men terrorising their full-backs.

I have also said if Brazil are going to lose at the World Cup it will be to a South American side. Not this one though, I feel Brazil will have too much for a depleted Chile side. Although their best central midfielders (Carmona and Fernandez) will be back, it won’t be enough

Prediction – 3-0

Paraguay vs Japan

This tie surprised me. I didn’t see either team being as good as they were, and I thought this would be Italy Denmark. Still, this game is massive for both sides, as the winner will make it the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup. Paraguay were efficient in the group and the standouts for me have been new Wigan centre-back Antolin Alcaraz and Enrique Vera. Even more impressive is they’ve done this without Oscar Cardozo most of the time, arguably their best player

Japan have also quietly gone about their business. They were good against a weak Cameroon side, narrowly beaten by the Dutch before stunning against Denmark. Keisuke Honda is the key man for them after dispatching his superb free-kick. The midfield has been outstanding for Japan. Endo, Honda and Hasebe are the driving force in midfield and they have to control the game if Japan are to win here.

Once again, two very equal sides. I fancy an upset if Japan play as well as they did against Denmark

Prediction 1-2

Spain vs Portugal

An Iberian derby to finish. This is arguably the closest game to call. Spain have proved themselves to be vulernable, after the defeat to Switzerland. Both soon after, order was restored, although they started slowly against Chile, ultimately they were the better team. The pre-tournament favourites face a tough task here, but a familiar enemy in Portugal, who’ve performed much better than I though they would (even with two 0-0’s).

Their 7-0 demolition of North Korea proved that up-front they can overpower weaker teams. Against Spain that’s not going to happen but I see them scoring. Defensively Portugal have looked immaculate, yet to concede. Fabio Coentrao has been magnificent but Raul Meireles has performed way above the levels I thought he could. Given space, he could punish the Spaniards.

If Puyol and Pique hold steady, then Spain should win this. But not comfortably.

Prediction – 2-1

So there we are, the last 16 teams left have been previewed and there some terrific ties in prospect. I leave you with my favourite match so far. Slovakia Italy. Truly remarkable game.


World Cup Preview – The rest of Group C

So we’ve had a look at the 3 Lions, but how will the other three teams in Group C do. The USA side have finally hit their potential by making the Confederations Cup final last year. Algeria have surged up the FIFA rankings in recent years, and had a good African Cup of Nations campaign. Slovenia could be a dark-horse in this competition. England better not get overconfident here then.

USA

The US were ridiculed throughout the 90s when it came to football. After holding at the World Cup in 1994, they went to France 98 full of optimism; only to be the worst team in the competition (this could be down to a certain situation reminiscent of a certain England player however).

Just over ten years later, the US made the Confederations Cup final in 2009 proving they had finally overcome the barrage of criticism aimed at ‘the rebirth of soccer’ initiative set up in the early 90’s . They even beat European champs and tournament favourites Spain along the way.

But last time out in the World Cup, things didn’t exactly go to plan as the Yanks crashed out of the group stage. They will hope to emulate their 2002 campaign where they made the Quarter finals.

STRENGTHS

One thing they can rely on is certainly their goalkeepers. All three selected play at Premier League clubs and Tim Howard has had a pretty solid season at Everton this year. They can also count upon some great midfielders at their disposal, who have made a name for themselves at various European clubs. Fulham’s Clint Dempsey is fairly adept in midfield and can be a decent frontman when called upon. Landon Donovan showed exactly what he can do from his loan at Everton.  This side isn’t about style and flair, but build upon strong foundations of being tenacious at times.

WEAKNESSES

Where some players thrive in the Premier League and Europe, others flounder. Jozy Altidore barely scored at relegated Hull. Former Rangers winger, Da Marcus Beasley has barely played in the last few months and hasn’t looked anywhere near as good as he was at PSV Eindhoven. Former wonderkid, Freddy Adu now finds himself at Greek side Aris. The fact that many of these players  failed to live up the hype shows that the Americans don’t have a strong enough side to contend.

They also lack an out and out goalscorer. Donovan and Altidore will lead the line and neither are complete strikers. The defence seems a bit weak as well, and certainly injury prone. Milan’s Oguchi Onyewu has only made fleeting appearances for them, last playing in October. His partner in defence will likely be Jay Demerit, who has had a terrible season on the sidelines with a serious eye injury and currently nursing an abdominal strain. The defence doesn’t look formidable and Tim Howard will have his work cut out.

Will Donovan inspire?

KEY PLAYER – Landon Donovan

A move to Germany early in his career didn’t prove to the smartest move, and he struggled to make an impact. Back from the Bundesliga, in the MLS, he became the league’s most valuable player at LA Galaxy (until a certain superstar transferred). He is the US’s all time leading goalscorer and became the catalyst at Everton on loan, turning their season around.

MANAGER – Bob Bradley

Took over from Bruce Arena after the last World Cup, he made a slow start and fans called for his removal because of his style of play. But after the 2009 Confederations Cup run, he’s finally been accepted by the fans. This will be the 6th straight World Cup for the US and anything better than 2006 is expected as a minimum requirement.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP –  66-1

PREDICTION – Should make it out of the group as runners up

SLOVENIA

Much is unknown about the Slovenians but they managed to knock out a good Russian side in the playoffs to South Africa. A Russian side with multi-million pound talent available to it in Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavluchenko to name two. This isn’t their first World Cup either, after appearing in 2002, in what I can describe as the weirdest group of World Cup history. But I shouldn’t knock this side, to make 2 World Cups in only 20 years after declaring independence from Yugoslavia, is pretty impressive. This side is completely different to the previous side as well.

STRENGTHS

Keeping it simple. Straight out 4-4-2 with short neat passing. By looking at their qualifying campaign, it seems they keep clean sheets and work hard to achieve good results.They have a decent young keeper in Samir Handanovic who has made over 100 appearances for Udinese. Other players that you should look out for are former West Brom player Robert Koren, who will captain the side from the centre of midfield. Another good player is frontman Mile Novakovic, who’s scored 14 goals for his country and 51 in 108 league games for Cologne. He could grab a few here.

Slovenia also have some gifted youth players. Rene Khrin plays for Inter and has yet to become a household name in that side, but to even be at a club of that stature shows his talent.

WEAKNESSES

Their greatest strength looks set to be their downfall. Keeping the football simple works against sides worse than you, but against the US and England, they might well be torn apart. Several players are fringe players at their clubs across Europe, which isn’t going to help either. Pure determination won’t be enough unfortunately.

KEY PLAYER – Zatko Dedic

The scorer of the winner against Russia, he’s a tireless worker for the side. Will support Novakovic up front. Think Carlos Tevez but not as profilic.

MANAGER – Matjaz Kek

He got this side to the World Cup, so should be loved in his country. After wining titles with Maribor, he was appointed in 2006 as the national coach of the smallest country in this World Cup.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Out at the group stage, not enough quality here

ALGERIA

The Desert Foxes (what a nickname) endured what can only be described as the most long winded and dramatic route into the World Cup. Facing fierce rivals Egypt in a playoff, which included 15,000 police being deployed in Sudan to control riots after the game, the Algerians came out on top and make the trip to South Africa.

They will make their first appearance at World Cup since Mexico 86 after more than 20 years in the wilderness. They had a reasonable successful Cup of Nations earlier this year, which was marred by stupidity against Egypt in the semi final. This game saw several red cards, one of which for a headbutt on the referee, and Algeria finished the game with 8 men.

STRENGTHS

Algeria have a lot of pace. Nadir Belhadj was one of Portsmouth’s better players this season, and can fly down the left side, and even grab a goal or two if needed. Hassan Yebda, also of Pompey this season, can also trouble defenders on the right. Expect a counter attacking nature from this side.

Majid Bougherra, who often turned up late from international duty with Rangers, can be a very good centre-back and will aid a defence who will be under siege at times.

WEAKNESSES

Algeria are very ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. It all depends which side turns up in South Africa. As shown as against Egypt, the heat of the moment can get the better of them at times. Occasionally tactical suicide occurs as well, after deploying a 3-5-2 against Malawi in the group stage at the Cup of Nations. They lost 3-0.

They undoubtedly have the desire and capability but this might be one tournament too far for them.

Can Belhadj translate club form to the national side?

KEY PLAYER – Nadir Belhadj

He certainly made an impact at Portsmouth, with some exceptional running from left-back and he grabbed a few goals as well, notably in a 1-0 win against Liverpool. Looks certain to leave the relegated club with West Ham (under Avram Grant) or Roma being possibilities.

MANAGER – Rabah Saadane

Little is known of the 64 year old former defender. Vast experience throughout African football and has managed Algeria 5 times. You just can’t get rid of him, so he must be good.

ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 500/1

PREDICTION – Too crazy, not enough talent. Group stage exit

Overall, it has to be England and the US going through. Next time on 6 Pointer, we take a look at Group D, and more specfically the Germans, but never count out the Aussies or the Serbs.

I leave you with the greatest Algerian never to play for Algeria, Zinedine Zidane