Chris Durkin warmed up on the sideline, not knowing if his number would be called during D.C. United’s season opener. At 18, he had never played in an MLS match. So when he heard someone call his name, he had to do a double-take.
“It’s me?” Durkin remembers asking, pointing to himself in his attempt to clarify. “It’s me, right?”
Durkin sprinted over to the bench, and his mind buzzed with emotion. Before he entered, he noticed a camera and saw himself on the video board. He wondered about his family back home in Richmond. The rest is a blur. Durkin stepped onto the field and all was familiar and soccer became his world.
The celebration generated by these milestones must be short-lived, said Durkin’s dad, Kevin. All professional athletes — and especially the still-developing newcomers such as Durkin — can’t rest on the past.
Durkin joined United’s team as a 16-year-old and the fifth-youngest homegrown signing in MLS history. At that point, he set a goal: He wanted to be an important part of the team by the year Audi Field opened. His debut against Orlando City marked the beginning of Durkin accomplishing just that. He notched his first start three games later and has played the full 90 minutes 11 times — far more than he expected before the season. (This winter, there was reportedly interest between Durkin and a Portuguese club, but it turned out Durkin did not need to make a move to find playing time.)
In the first half of this season, the defensive midfielder’s opportunities arose due to Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno’s injuries. Canouse missed the first 14 games thanks to a preseason knee injury, and Moreno has had hamstring issues. Both have started the past two games, so Durkin has played only a couple minutes as a sub.
“We relied on Durkin very heavily early in this season,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “He grew into the position. He did very well. He got better. In some ways, it was a good time for Russell to come back because [Durkin] needed a little bit of an exhale. He got that, and now he has to show us again that he is ready to take this spot again.”
With United set to face Orlando City on Sunday, Durkin will likely find himself in a situation similar to the opener — starting on the sideline, unsure if and when he’ll come in. When asked about Canouse’s return, Durkin responded like a seasoned pro, not a frustrated teen. He wants the team to win. He has frequent conversations with Olsen. He hopes to keep getting better. And he says he’s happy.
Durkin understands that for a player his age, development is a priority. Training is for learning, not just maintaining. He has far more professional starts in front of him than behind. He represented the U.S. at the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, starting in all five matches. Durkin’s success with the youth national team, combined with his playing time for United, will keep him on the radar of European clubs.
Durkin, who grew up in Glen Allen, Va., lives with the family of his dad’s cousin in Alexandria. That’s a good environment for him, Durkin’s dad said, adding that he doesn’t think his son is quite ready to live completely on his own. At 18, Durkin is the youngest on United’s first-team roster. Bruno Miranda is 20, and everyone else is at least 23.
Some of Durkin’s teammates have houses, wives and kids. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old just got his driver’s license in April and has two more online classes to finish before he graduates from high school. Durkin went to prom at his girlfriend’s school, and he plays Fortnite with his friends. But on the field, he said he doesn’t feel young.
“He’s had to learn how to be a man a lot sooner than most kids,” Kevin Durkin said. “He’s nearly to the point where he can just be Chris, which is going to allow him to be even more successful.”
After emerging as a regular starter in the first half of the season, Durkin was named to the 2018 MLS Homegrown Game roster but elected not to participate. In MLS play, he has notched an assist but has committed 18 fouls and been shown four yellow cards. Durkin picked up two yellow cards in a U.S. Open Cup match this year, forcing United to play with 10 men for 21 minutes in extra time.
“He’s learning his physicality,” Olsen said after that game. “He’s learning everything before our eyes. It’s beautiful to watch, and it’s also heartbreaking.”
During high school, Durkin spent a year with the U.S. Soccer Residency Program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Last season, he played with the Richmond Kickers, United’s USL affiliate.
Durkin joined United’s Pre-Academy as a 12-year-old, and the family committed to frequent two-hour drives to the District for training. Sometimes, Durkin said, they would make it to D.C. only to have practice canceled for bad weather.
“When you’re making that drive up every day, the question is do you really want this?” said Durkin, who continued making the trip to D.C. for the next few years. “Are we wasting our time driving up here every day or where do you see this going? That’s a conversation that’s hard to have with a kid who’s 15 years old.”
Durkin’s mother, father and grandfather would take turns driving. Durkin would usually do homework on the way there and sleep on the way back. His mom, Rebecca, said she enjoyed the time spent in the car with her middle schooler.
Durkin’s mom said she trusted her husband when deciding whether training in D.C. was best for their son. Durkin’s dad played college soccer at SUNY Oneonta, and he rationalized the family’s effort because he said his son showed the same commitment on the field. Their other son, 15-year-old Andrew, is now part of Atlanta United’s Academy.
Durkin was attracted to D.C. United’s Academy because he thought its development plan for him would lead him to the highest level of play. That plan, he said, is working. And he’s moving along even faster than expected.
“He’s come a long way,” Durkin’s dad said. “But I know he wants to keep going.”