D.C. academy product Najar rising to the challenge

17-year-old worked his way from the U-16s to the first team

At first glance, Andy Najar looks just about old enough beon the D.C. United U-16 academy team for which he was starring until recently.

Quiet, slightly built and profoundly unassuming, the D.C.United rookie bears the cautious demeanor most teenagers would need to adopt ifthey were to leave home for a foreign land in the midst of adolescence, asNajar did three years ago when his family emigrated from Choluteca, onHonduras’ sultry Pacific coast, to the suburban world of Alexandria, Va.

He’s still working his way towards his high school degree,he remains more comfortable answering media queries in Spanish and his teenageframe is still coming to terms with the harsh physical grind of Major League Soccer,as evinced by the nagging ankle injury that kept him out of United’s matchagainst FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday.

But Najar has met—and largely matched—the many challengespresented to him, especially on the field of play. He’s risen through United’ssystem with startling speed, blazing a trail from academy trainee to first-teamstarter in a manner often envisioned, but rarely seen, in MLS circles. Even headmits to being surprised by his significant role in this year’s D.C. squad,having logged 211 minutes in four matches thus far, much of which has beenspent in the high-pressure environment of central midfield.

“I was coming up in a youth academy team – it was more thatthey were going to prepare me to make that big jump to the first level,”admitted the 17-year-old in an interview with MLSsoccer.com. “I’m feeling moreconfident and comfortable as the days progress, but I didn’t expect that Iwould be having a lot of the impact that I’m having so far on the first team… I’mjust looking forward to progressing.”

Najar, who was promoted from United’s U-16 team to their U-18level almost as rapidly as he advanced to the senior squad, credits his academyexperience for the tactical and positional understanding that has helped him contributein various roles this season. Yet for all the promise represented in hisprogress, the roots of Najar’s ability run far deeper than his time withUnited.

He was introduced to the game at a young age by his fatherWilson, who played for Broncos, the Honduran second-division side inCholuteca’s capital city, and Andy’s younger brothers joined in not long afterthey entered the world as well. 

“I started playing at age three, because obviously my dadplayed,” Najar explained. “Me and my brothers would go with our dad. He’s theone that taught us how to play, how to hit the ball properly. We were alwayswith him, watching him play. He’s the one that taught us.

“Ever since I can remember, since I was five years old, my dreamwas to be a professional someday. I’m thankful to God that I’ve gotten thisopportunity.”

Wilson Najar, who still plays in a Washington-area men’sleague these days, began his career as an attacker before moving back todefense in his later years, and that versatility seems to have rubbed off onhis oldest son. Andy prefers a forward role, but he’s already played severalpositions for the Black-and-Red this season as head coach Curt Onalfo haslooked for various ways to make the most of Najar’s youthful energy andconfidence on the ball.

Najar is quick to express his gratitude at the surprisingdegree of trust and confidence invested in him by Onalfo, but the teenager hasgiven another member of the D.C. coaching staff one of the highest complimentsa player can offer: on game days he dons the no. 14 shirt long worn by BenOlsen, the club icon who retired over the winter after a long and distinguishedcareer in the United midfield.

“I used to come to all the games and watch him,” Najarrecalled. “I loved the way that Ben played and that’s the reason why I choseit.”

United’s dire start to the campaign has forced Onalfo andcompany to reconsider their preference for a more nuanced style of play, andtheir coming matches seem likely to feature a more straightforward, workmanlikeapproach, much like the one that brought D.C. their first win of the yearagainst Kansas City on Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether Najar’sattributes can be easily meshed with this shift, but there is little questionthat he represents the future for a club which takes pride in having fieldedseveral of the youngest players in MLS history.

“Andy’s a very special kid,” said Bill Hamid, the19-year-old goalkeeper who is the other poster boy for Onalfo’s youth movement.“I signed when I was 18 and he’s been around since 15. For him to be two orthree years before me and seeing him on the field – seeing the talent he hasand the potential of what he could be – that kid could be unstoppable one day.”