By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; D01
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.
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."