WASHINGTON – Andy Najar has been laying low since the conclusion of D.C. United’s season – eating, sleeping in, spending time with his family and girlfriend, and generally doing his best to recover from a draining debut campaign.
But the quiet 17-year-old had to put all that aside for a few hours on Wednesday as he was thrust back into the spotlight with the news that he’d won the MLS Rookie of the Year award. Arriving at RFK Stadium at midday, Najar was greeted by a standing ovation from a throng of United employees, then soon found himself wading through a litany of media coverage on the latest and greatest accomplishment of his breakout year.
[inline_lightbox:14074]And in another sign of his steady growth as both a player and a person, the shy Najar conducted interviews in both Spanish and English.
“That was big news for me,” he said of his reaction to the news that he’d edged out finalists Tim Ream and Danny Mwanga for the league prize. “I was so excited, I didn’t say anything. For me, it’s a big thing to win this award, the Rookie of the Year. It’s a big thing for my life.”
Signed to a senior contract with minimal fanfare last March after working his way up through United’s youth academy, Najar soon became his team’s most dangerous attacking weapon with mesmerizing dribbling abilities, endless energy and smartly-timed runs. The Honduran-born winger’s rapid rise stunned observers around the league – and even many at his own club.
“We knew he was a special player,” said DC general manager Dave Kasper on Wednesday. “We knew after preseason that he was going to contribute. But to come in, start and have the impact that he did, we did not expect that.”
Najar admits as much himself.
“Yeah, this season surprised me,” he said. “Nobody knew me at the start of the season, but now? I don’t know. I just feel like I am a professional. I learned a lot of stuff: discipline, how to play hard, how to play for the team, how to play for the fans.”
Even more impressively, Najar did not fade down the stretch like most MLS rookies. Dubbed “The Little Warrior” by former DC head coach Curt Onalfo, he lived up to that tag with a string of focused, dogged performances even after becoming a marked man by opposing defenses.
Yet his older teammates continued to look to him for creative inspiration and he usually obliged, raising the pulses of DC fans whenever he took possession. Najar’s talent represented a shining light amid a supremely difficult season for United and he’s eager to lead the squad into a fresh start in 2011.
“I want to work hard for the team, helping the team to win more games than this season – new year, new team,” he said on Wednesday. “On the field, my mind is always just thinking to play. It doesn’t matter where I am – just playing the game.
“I think next year we will be better.”