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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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Recently, because of the growth of the MLS development academies and the league's decision to add two more roster slots for "home grown" talent, an incentive to sign the top players from within their youth systems, more young players have options outside of college.

In all, eight players have signed directly from a youth academy to a senior MLS roster -- the first, L.A. Galaxy's Tristan Bowen in November 2008-- and several prominent under-17 players such as Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union) and Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake) have also signed.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there are 18 players in MLS under the age of 20, and the number of teenagers who appeared in a game before turning 20 has risen significantly -- from two in 1996 to a high of 20 in 2007. Seven have appeared in games thus far in 2010. After averaging just 3.8 players under the age of 20 playing in its first five years, MLS has seen that average rise to 13.2 over the past nine seasons.

Opportunities expand

The influx of youth is still in its infancy, Rongen said, and has been slowed by the country's view on education and emphasis on college.

"It is finally getting closer to what the rest of the world looks like," said Rongen, who was born in Holland and coached D.C. United from 1999 to 2001. ". . . We can't provide [the right development] with the youth club system at this time, we can't provide it in the college atmosphere, so I'm pleased to see we're taking some steps to provide players with the opportunity to play in MLS and stay home, or if they desire go to Europe."

In the past year, three prominent local youth players turned professional: Najar and goalkeepers Bill Hamid and Samir Badr.

Hamid signed with D.C. United in September after graduating last spring and is now the backup goalkeeper. Badr attended school in Bradenton, Fla., at the U.S. national team residential academy, returned home to finish high school at Robinson and then went to Europe for a trial with FC Porto, where he remains now playing with the reserves. Najar, an All-Met with Edison last spring, joined D.C. United last month.

College often the path

But while the opportunity to play professionally at a younger age is expanding, the vast majority of the top players remain on a path to play in college -- though more players are coming out of college early. Local youth national team players Shaquille Phillips and Julio Arjona opted to begin their careers in college. Phillips will play for Duke, while Arjona, the 2009 Fall All-Met Player of the Year at Clarksburg, enrolled early at West Virginia.

Riverbend junior Ryan Zinkhan, an under-18 U.S. national pool player, wasted little time in making his decision. He committed to the University of Virginia as a sophomore.

"It's hit or miss if you go away from the college experience," Zinkhan said. "I feel like if you get injured and don't have an education, it's a chance you take and I don't know if I'd want to take that risk. I feel like the U.S. is progressing every year with better soccer talents and it's really the person's background and what he's feeling at the time. It can go well for him [or] it can go wrong. That's life."

Arjona was approached by an agent last summer and offered trials in France and Germany but ultimately decided to hold off on his professional career.

"I just wanted to have something to back up on in case I got injured," Arjona said. "Or maybe if it wasn't meant to be, I wanted to make sure that I had something to rely on. And in college you're developing further, living by yourself and setting goals for yourself -- it's still in the system of being a pro."

Pro environment is key

Players choosing college is a reality Rongen said likely will never change completely in the United States, but he remains encouraged by the recent increase in younger players going pro.

"I don't know that [turning pro straight out of high school] ever will be the norm, quite frankly, that's part of being in this country where education is still very important," Rongen said. "But I think that the elite player is very astute nowadays and recognizes if they want to succeed at highest level that they need to get into a pro environment as quickly as possible."

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