D.C. United's Andy Najar may also be the future of soccer in his native Honduras

By Jorge Castillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010

When Honduras takes the field Monday against heavy favorite Spain in a World Cup match, thousands of Hondurans in the D.C. metropolitan area are likely to be watching.

But unlike his countrymen, Andy Najar may do more than just watch in the very near future. The 17-year-old, who some believe represents the future of Honduran soccer, may find himself in a national team uniform as quickly as he donned a D.C. United one.

Najar debuted in United's season opener at Kansas City and has appeared in nine of the team's 12 matches, including six starts. He scored his first career goal on May 29 against Chivas USA.

"When I first started with the team I was nervous, but each day I'm getting more and more confident, and I thank God that I'm getting better and getting used to it," Najar said in his native Spanish.

Najar is not the first teenager to turn pro in MLS or for United. Bobby Convey and Santino Quaranta both signed with United at the age of 16 in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Earlier this season, 19-year-old Bill Hamid -- another homegrown product -- became the youngest goalkeeper to win a game in MLS history.

"He's way ahead of most 17-year-olds and he's technically extremely gifted, but probably one of his best qualities is that he just has explosiveness and quickness that is exceptional," said D.C. United Coach Curt Onalfo, who calls Najar "el pequeño guerrero," Spanish for "the little warrior."

"He's got unbelievable concentration," he added. "Usually, young players are focused for a short period of time and then they lose focus and they make errors because of that. Andy very rarely makes errors because of concentration."

Ben Olsen, an assistant coach and former player for United, said the fact that Najar seemingly came out of nowhere has helped him -- especially compared to a player such as Freddy Adu, who signed with United at the age of 14 in 2004 and came in with unprecedented hype.

"Freddy had a very difficult task to live to the standards that a lot of the American media put him under and it was going to be very tough for him to match that," he said.

Najar, his parents, and his younger brother came to the United States four years ago from the rural town of Santa Cruz in southern Honduras. With a population of less than 6,000, Santa Cruz is far from a soccer factory.

The Najar family settled in Alexandria, where some relatives lived. Najar immediately tried out for D.C. United's U-16 team, but was denied because he was too young. It wasn't long before he was starring for Edison High, where he enrolled in 2007 and got his break when a United assistant coach discovered him playing pickup at the school.

Since then Najar's rise has been rapid.

He tried out again and made the U-16 team. Although he never had played defense before, he started out at right back for the team and found success. At the same time, he excelled as a forward at Edison. He scored 22 goals his sophomore season and was named to The Washington Post's All-Met first team.

He moved up to the U-18 at the age of 16 and finally earned his chance to play up top with the club. He scored four goals in three games (all wins) in a tournament in North Carolina. He followed that effort with five goals in four games at the U.S. Developmental Academy Finals in Los Angeles last summer.

"From there the manager said I was going to play forward," Najar said. "He said I had the intelligence and skill to play there."

The scoring outburst, along with an impressive month of practice with the first team, led D.C. United to sign him in March to a guaranteed contract worth at least $40,000 per year through 2011. He has since dropped out of school and has a tutor through the team.

"I always wanted to play professionally and now that I have the opportunity I'm going to take advantage of it," said Najar, who described the physicality of the pro game as the biggest difference for him on the field.

His play on the field and his work ethic off it has won over teammates, a few of whom are twice his age. "The guys really like him 'cause they respect him and he's just a well-grounded kid," Onalfo said. "On the field he continues to improve.

Najar's goal is to play in Europe for his favorite club, Real Madrid, and for the Honduran national team. He already has been in contact with the Honduran U-20 team.

With possible national team participation looming, he got his first chance against another national team Saturday. In D.C.'s friendly against El Salvador, Najar was one of three United players to play the entire game and nearly scored in the first half. Aggressive throughout, he received a yellow card in D.C.'s 1-0 win.

"If he progresses the way he's progressing, I don't know how long we'll be able to keep him," Olsen admitted.

"He's a guy that needs to consistently be dangerous, game in and game out," Onalfo said. "And as he does that, he's going to get noticed by the Honduran national team. I would think that there's no reason why he can't be a part of the national team in the very near future."

For today, however, he's just a fan like everyone else.

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