Teenagers have broken out in MLS in 2010, including Philadelphia's Danny Mwanga, who came in at #5 in the 24 Under 24. But none of the "kids" has impressed as much as D.C. United's crafty versatile attacker Andy Najar.
Road to Stardom:
Andy Najar is part of a new generation of MLS players that "graduated" from the club's academy system and into the senior team. After joining D.C.'s academy in 2008, the Honduran-born midfielder flourished quickly, and in 2010 he signed a Generation adidas contract. He made his professional debut in D.C.'s season opener at just 17 years old.
Najar's MLS debut was, in some ways, a harbinger of what was to come. Though United were ultimately thrashed 4-0 by Kansas City, Najar hit the crossbar with a 25-yard volley early in the game. Najar was subbed out at halftime, but the audacity of his effort didn't go unnoticed. Then-D.C. boss Curt Onalfo stuck with his young winger, who repaid his former boss' faith by scoring a highlight-worthy goal in a U.S. Open Cup game against RSL on June 2. After collecting the ball wide right, Najar split two defenders before finishing his effort with the outside of his cleat. The goal became an overnight sensation and signaled Najar's arrival as "the future of U.S. soccer."
Confidence. Despite his age and his size — he's listed at 5-foot-7-inches and 150 pounds — Najar isn't afraid to take on anyone in the league. He clearly boasts a natural talent when the ball is at his feet and he never shies away from using it. Also, Najar seems to possess burgeoning leadership skills that belie his age and inexperience. However, what makes Najar special — at least for now — is that this confidence has yet to evolve into arrogance. The D.C. brass are doing all they can to keep Najar grounded, and in turn, Najar appears willing to focus on attaining a complete game.
What the Technical Directors Say:
"I think he’s better suited as a second forward. They put him up top on occasions and he’s a very good off-the-ball runner … [He's] dangerous off the ball because of his mobility and the timing of his runs … Najar has a wonderful, elusive quality to him … [but] he still needs to figure out how to ride challenges better. That’s not to say the kid isn’t tough, but because of the size, he’s going to be physically challenged a little bit more as teams struggle to contain him through other means."
There's plenty of chatter around the league that Najar is Europe-bound. However, this is perhaps premature given the short time he's played professional soccer. Najar needs show he can continue to improve and perform at a high level — and that means avoiding a "sophomore slump" next season. Opposition players have already begun shutting him down physically, so he has to show he can rise above the niggling fouls and still contribute to his team. The other question surrounds his international future. As a green card holder, Najar is halfway toward earning U.S. citizenship, which would make him eligible to play for the Yanks. Until then, though, Honduras is undoubtably keeping an eye on the teenage star.
What is the 24 Under 24? Simply, the best 24 players in MLS under the age of 24 (as of Nov. 1, 2010).
MLSsoccer.com whittled down the list to a group of 30 players and then an expert panel ranked the names based on five categories: (1) Skill; (2) Upside; (3) Q-Rating or Marketability; (4) Future Value; and (5) Intangibles.
The “24 Under 24” expert panel was made up of six members: Jeff Carlisle (ESPN.com), Steve Davis (SI.com), Brian Dunseth (Fox Soccer Channel), Allen Hopkins (ESPN), Alexi Lalas (ESPN) and the MLSsoccer.com editorial staff.