The kids are coming
Leander Schaerlaeckens
June 1, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- Andy Najar, 17, runs cuts and curls, darts off and comes to a sudden stop. He drifts to the right wing, collects the ball with his right foot, controls it with his left and flips it into space with his right again, sending D.C. United teammate Adam Cristman on a clear path to goal. Three touches. Cristman only has to tap the ball over the goalkeeper to put his team ahead.

Najar whizzes past a man and sends in a dangerous cross.

He chests a ball down, deadens it off his right quad and plays it off his left foot before it hits the ground. Next, he hurtles off in pursuit of a loose ball. The defender gets there first, but Najar hounds him into giving up a throw-in.

Minutes later, Ugo Ihemelu, an experienced defender for FC Dallas, holds the ball securely between his feet. Unnoticed, Najar comes up from behind him and rolls the ball back from in between the unsuspecting Ihemelu's legs and immediately plays it back to a teammate in scoring position.

Najar covers acres of space, sneaking into vacant pockets, hugging the offside trap, dropping deep to collect the ball. He sends crosses, through-balls, high balls and back-passes. All arrive.

He peels off a long dribble toward goal. When he is upended, Cristman gets a good chance to score. A feisty shot from distance is deflected for a corner.

Najar fakes out his defender and spurts off. He meets a cross from Cristman by the second post, slipping his foot under the ball just before it lands on the turf, swatting it into the net with the outside of his right foot with a sense of finesse laughing in the face of his youth. His first professional goal. One touch.

On the next play he gets another cross from Cristman, to his head this time. He pounds it toward the grass but sees Kevin Hartman make a fine save.

With minutes to spare, Najar is still pressing, still running hard, his eternal thirst for the ball unquenched.

When the game is over, Najar appears on the big screen: "Andy Najar, D.C. United, Man of the Match."

He has led D.C. United to its first win of the year.

And on this day, he did so showing off some of the technical ability and imagination that made Freddy Adu such a scintillating talent. Only Najar combines it with moxie and a monstrous appetite for on-field labor, something conspicuously absent from Adu's game when he ambled around this very stadium.

Andy Najar is the bright lining to the very dark cloud over D.C. United's start to the season. He's also the poster boy for the future of youth soccer in the United States.

* * * * *

In 2001, five years into its existence, D.C. United became one of the first MLS teams to dabble in youth development, launching a team for players under the age of 15 (U-15). It immediately won a national championship in its age bracket. "That was the beginning of our youth development system," says Curt Onalfo, now United's head coach but then an assistant coach charged with the creation of a youth team.

The vision of a full-blown youth academy had been born from a realization that the areas abutting Washington were abundant in young soccer talent. "It's a hotbed here in D.C.," says Onalfo. "It was just a matter of getting them the right training and the right coaching."

The program now fields teams in four age brackets and operates on a $500,000 annual budget, a sizable sum in a league where payrolls are capped at $2.55 million. After three years of play, the U-16s have won two national championships and finished second once. The U-18s were national finalists last year.

In 2006, Najar, a slight 13-year-old recent immigrant from Honduras, first tried out for the academy, which weeds out 75 percent of applicants. He was turned away, deemed too young.

He enrolled at Edison High School in Alexandria, Va., in the summer of 2007, and an assistant soccer coach noticed him playing pickup games in front of the school. "One of the best kids I've ever had fell into my lap," recalls head coach Scott Racek. "He would still be playing out front if it weren't for my assistant."

In his high school debut Najar scored a hat trick. "That was the first time he stepped on the field, I think, in organized soccer," says Racek. Before his freshman year was out, Najar returned to United and made the cut.

Splitting time between United's under-16s, under-18s and Edison as a sophomore, Najar scored 22 goals in just 14 games for the latter, earning Washington Post All-Met First Team honors.

Najar dropped out of Edison in the spring of 2010 (D.C. has since taken charge of his education) and signed a guaranteed contract with United on March 22 worth at least $40,000 annually through 2011 and climbing up to at least $50,000 per year if club options are picked up through 2014. Najar joined goalkeeper Bill Hamid as United academy players to be picked up by the senior team.

The young midfielder made his debut in the season opener, a 4-0 loss at Kansas City. Benefiting from a spate of injuries and the transient lineup of a team desperately seeking points and form, Najar made two more MLS starts before he was slowed by an ankle injury. He returned to the starting lineup on May 28 against Chivas USA, scoring his first MLS regular-season goal and picking up another man-of-the-match nod.

In just a couple months, Najar has left a deep impression.

"I love the kid," says United assistant coach Ben Olsen. "He's just such a breath of fresh air -- when a 17-year-old kid can be out there with grown men and be inspiring in the way he plays. He's a kid who every time he's on the field is going to be a little warrior. It's a rare thing and I'm glad we have him."

United goalkeeper Troy Perkins laughs, "I don't know where he came from. He's only 17 and he plays like he's 22, 23 years old. He's got grit, he's got the toughness and he's quick and creative and he's going to be a fantastic player.

"Some people would say it's one off, that they found that lucky star," posits Perkins. "But let's look at the bigger picture. We've got Bill Hamid, who is 19 years old and is a fantastic prospect as a goalkeeper as well." Hamid became the youngest goalie to win an MLS game in his very serviceable pro debut on May 5 and hasn't relinquished the starting job since. "I think it gives a huge amount of respect to the academy," Perkins says.

* * * * *

D.C. United president Kevin Payne, who chairs a U.S. Soccer task force on player development, refers to the academy approach as an "intervention."

"A lot of research showed that a lot of the best young soccer players in America were playing way too many games -- in many instances over 100 a year -- and way too many of those games were not of very high quality," he says. "We had our ratio of training time to games inverted to the...
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