Honduras has secured passage to the Olympic quarterfinals. Might that major accomplishment also enhance Andy Najar’s passage to Europe?
We are, of course, getting ahead of ourselves. Najar, D.C. United’s 19-year-old winger, has had a good tournament, starting all three group matches and contributing to the goal that toppled Spain. He has displayed pace, skill and ambition. He is not, however, a sign-him-at-all-costs prospect that has left European scouts drooling. The true test will come Saturday when Honduras faces gold medal favorite Brazil.
That said, as an under-23 event featuring many players from smaller countries, the Olympic tournament is a showcase for emerging talent and a marketplace for Euro clubs. And those clubs are browsing CONCACAF’s aisles.
A Sky Sports report Wednesday said Premier League clubs Wigan, Norwich and West Brom have taken a keen interest in Najar, who had trained informally with Tottenham Hotspur last winter.
For a small nation, Honduran soccer is held in high regard on the international front, having qualified for the World Cup and Olympics and sent players overseas for years. Among the Olympic overage selections was Maynor Figueroa, a Wigan defender since 2008.
Najar is a particularly compelling prospect because of his age (19). He is three or four years younger than most of his Olympic teammates and second youngest on the squad. (Najar is 40 days older than Spain-based forward Antony Lozano.)
With 2 ½ pro seasons under his belt, Najar has been through the rigors of a long campaign and worked with older, experienced players. In other words, he understands the demands and responsibilities of being a professional. A European club that deems him talent-worthy would acquire a player who has been broken in.
At his age and experience level, Najar has reached a prime moment to move abroad. Not to a Champions League side, mind you, but a smaller club that would play him regularly and push him to the next level, a level that many observers believe he is capable of reaching outside of MLS.
Najar had a terrific maiden season in 2010, winning MLS rookie of the year honors. He didn’t meet expectations last year and has produced mixed results this season while locked in a constant battle for playing time.
United still considers Najar an important component in its playoff ambitions, and losing him late in the campaign would damage the effort. But this is how soccer works: Players come and go. Prospects move on to greater opportunity and riches. Clubs collect transfer fees. Replacements step in and step up.
If a European club comes calling – and is willing to open its wallet – United and MLS must listen.
To this point, United’s phone probably hasn’t rung; it’s too early. If and when the calls come, General Manager Dave Kasper said, such conversations are “not something we would comment on.”
United sits in good position. It signed Najar to a long-term contract extension before the 2011 season, a deal that carries through 2014, plus an option year. So financially, United would cash in from a transfer -- funds that could be applied toward future acquisitions.
What is Najar’s value in the international market? Hard to say. MLS and the Houston Dynamo collected $2.7 million from Stoke City for defender-midfielder Geoff Cameron. Cameron is eight years older than Najar but has U.S. national team experience and is a better physical fit for England.
Najar is young, full of potential and wonder, but unproven on the senior level. He hasn’t exactly scorched MLS of late either. If the league asks for several million, it’s fooling itself.
As for the prospect of moving to England, Najar would encounter work visa issues. He doesn’t have the national team portfolio to qualify, but a club could make a case for an exceptional talent visa. Other leagues on the continent have lower thresholds for employment.
So what happens next? Najar will dream of outshining Neymar on Saturday. And when the Catrachos’ wondrous run ends, in a few days or another week, he will return to Washington to resume club duty. How long he remains in United’s black-and-red, though, is anyone’s guess.
Olympic quarterfinals Saturday
Japan vs. Egypt in Manchester, 7 a.m. ET
Mexico vs. Senegal in London, 9:30 a.m.
Brazil vs. Honduras in Newcastle, noon
Great Britain vs. South Korea in Cardiff, 2:30
All matches on MSNBC, NBC Olympic Soccer Channel and nbcolympics.com