D.C. United's Andy Najar is latest in trend of soccer players turning pro early

In 2004, Freddy Adu became the youngest player, at 14, to play in MLS, but D.C. United has had other teenage success stories.
In 2004, Freddy Adu became the youngest player, at 14, to play in MLS, but D.C. United has had other teenage success stories. (2006 Photo By Joel Richardson/the Washington Post)
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By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When D.C. United announced on March 22 that Andy Najar had signed with the club, the news made few waves beyond American soccer circles.

That Najar had just turned 17 and had dropped out of his junior year of high school to sign a professional contract was largely skipped over in favor of discussion about the Honduran teenager's immense talent. And just a few days later, Najar was starting for United in its season opener.

Yet had the midfielder been a highly touted basketball player, he never would have been allowed to make that leap -- the NBA now has an age limit of 19 -- and if he had been one of the country's top high school running backs instead of midfielders, Najar would have had five years remaining until he was draft eligible.

Unlike many other American sports, however, soccer follows a different protocol based primarily on a world system that has seen its share of successes with young stars. For the country's most elite soccer prospects, the opportunity to turn pro at a young age has created more options as they approach their junior and senior years in high school -- from U.S. national residency camp to European trials to professional contracts and college scholarships.

The one path that becomes the basic model for success, however, is yet to be seen.

"It doesn't happen with a college basketball player," United General Manager Dave Kasper said. "Their path is high school basketball, summer basketball, college basketball and then pros. We are different. And as now not only D.C. United but also MLS development academies mature, and these players five years down the road become elite, difference-making players in our league -- not just good solid everyday players but difference-making players -- that's when we'll all look back and that's when the public will buy into it more."

The financial motivation for soccer players is not quite as strong as the seven-figure contracts the NBA was offering top high school players before raising its age limit in 2006, but it can still be a factor. For a player like Najar, who does not come from wealth, the $40,000 league minimum (and a possible signing bonus) is a strong incentive. D.C. United did not release details of Najar's contract, though players of similar age and experience as Najar have received more than the league minimum.

While the trend of younger players turning professional has only now started to increase in recent years in the United States, examples of teenagers turning professional are prevalent in soccer around the world.

Two prominent examples include Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, who made his debut for Everton at the age of 16 and for England at 17, and Lionel Messi, largely considered the world's best player, who was plucked out of Argentina by Barcelona in 2000 and made his league debut for the Spanish giant at age 17 in 2004.

"There's definitely models for success," Kasper said. "They may not be in this country yet but there are models for success everywhere else in the world. . . . So we know there is a path to developing elite soccer players. We're just scraping the surface now."

United leads the way

MLS, too, has had its own examples of young players developed quickly in pro leagues. According to Elias Sports Bureau via D.C. United, four of the nine youngest players to start an MLS match did it in a D.C. uniform: Freddy Adu (14), Santino Quaranta (16), Bobby Convey (16) and Najar (17).

Thomas Rongen, coach of the U.S. under-20 men's national team, said he has seen his roster shift from a team made up mostly of college players to one now built on players who have turned pro either in Europe or the United States.

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