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D.C. United's Andy Najar named MLS rookie of the year

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:52 AM

Andy Najar, a Honduran immigrant who, at age 17, rose from the anonymity of D.C. United's youth academy to the starting lineup, was voted the MLS rookie of the year on Wednesday.

The other finalists were New York Red Bulls defender Tim Ream, who started every match for a first-place club, and Philadelphia Union forward Danny Mwanga, the first overall draft pick who had seven goals and four assists for an expansion team.

The league does not release voting totals for postseason awards, citing a complicated formula that weighs ballots from various categories.

Najar, a sleek and clever wide midfielder, was the solitary bright spot for United (6-20-4), which set league records for scoreless performances (17) and fewest goals (21). He was tied for the team high in goals with five (plus two in the U.S. Open Cup tournament), was second in regular season appearances (26 out of 30) and tied for second in starts (22).

"This type of a year, how could I tell it would happen?" Najar said. "I always said from the beginning that I wanted to play for United and that I wanted to play hard, and my [first goal] was to take one more step toward the first team."

In MLS's 15 seasons, Najar is the youngest to win the award by four years and the first United player to be so honored since Ben Olsen in 1998. Olsen, who started the season as an assistant coach but was named United's interim coach in August, was so impressed with Najar in the preseason, he bequeathed him his No. 14 jersey.

According to United's research, the youngest athlete from another pro league to win a rookie of the year award was Dale Hawerchuk of the NHL's Winnipeg Jets in 1981-82. Hawerchuk had just turned 19.

"We knew in preseason that we had a special player," United General Manager Dave Kasper said. "We weren't sure if he would become a starter quickly, but when he got a shot early, he ran with it."

Najar moved with his family to Alexandria from a rural southern region of Honduras about four years ago and attended Edison High School. He joined United's youth academy and, after making his mark with the club's under-16 and under-18 squad, dropped out of school last winter to sign a pro contract. (Najar works with a tutor in pursuit of a high school equivalency diploma.)

Beyond his modest statistics, Najar exhibited a courageous and unpredictable style that tormented defenders. With blinding footwork and deceptive moves, he opened space for himself in the attack. Against the Houston Dynamo late in the season, he made a superb shifting run across the penalty area that produced a goal.

Early this week, Najar was named United's most valuable player.

This winter, Najar might practice informally for two to three weeks with a club in England or Spain before returning for the start of United training camp in late January, Kasper said.

Najar is also expected to receive a pay raise after earning $59,000, not including bonuses. Kasper and Najar's representative, Chris Megaloudis, have begun negotiating a new contract. Four years remain on his current deal.

The award is "exciting for me, it's exciting for the club and our academy," he said. "This year has been hard for the club, so it is great to have this award, but our focus is on getting better next season."

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