“Now that I have more certainty,” he said, “I am going to try a little harder.”
Durkin, 20, is in position to make long-term plans in the town of 40,000 in eastern Belgium, after being sold by United to Sint-Truiden for $1.1 million. The sides struck a deal in principle last month and finalized paperwork this week.
United had sought $2 million, but with the novel coronavirus pandemic tanking the international transfer market, United’s revenue flow disrupted and Durkin eager to remain overseas, the clubs settled on a lower fee.
In exchange, United will collect a higher percentage (25 instead of 20) of any future transfer fee involving Durkin. (Sell-on clauses, as they are known, are common in the sport, especially involving young players.)
Durkin, from the Richmond suburb of Glen Allen, said he signed a three-year contract with Sint-Truiden. Terms were not disclosed, but after earning about $100,000 in MLS, he will receive a considerable pay bump.
“It would’ve been difficult to get to this [salary] point in MLS; I would’ve needed another few years,” he said.
The transfer ends Durkin’s eight-year association with United. At 12, he joined the club’s youth academy. At 16, he signed a homegrown contract. After playing in nonleague matches and with the second-tier Richmond Kickers, Durkin made his MLS regular season debut as a sub in the 2018 opener.
Over less than two full seasons, he made 36 league appearances (23 starts). Last summer, though, he injured an ankle and fell on the depth chart after United acquired veteran Felipe Martins.
After passing on opportunities the past year to send Durkin overseas, United loaned him to Sint-Truiden, which had just begun the 2019-20 first-division season.
“Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that Felipe arrived so I could pursue something else,” Durkin said. “I could get playing time in Europe, and D.C. could get some money off a loan. I think everyone benefited and mostly for me because it’s a good situation here” in Belgium.
Durkin did not play often in the fall but started 10 of the 11 league matches over three months in the winter. A natural defensive midfielder, he also has played center back and wide in a midfield diamond.
The season abruptly stopped in early March. League officials later announced it would not resume because of health concerns, but they have yet to ratify that decision.
During the pause, Durkin waited anxiously for the transfer to occur.
“The entire season, I had a lot of weight on my shoulders trying to prove every game and every practice that I belonged here,” he said. “I really wanted to stay. Even though they said [the negotiations were] positive, I didn’t hear anything about numbers. It was stressful. I will be able to play a little more free now. Knowing I am going to be here eases my mind a lot.”
Life in a town 40 miles east of Brussels is different than in Washington.
Durkin has his own place, provided by the club. “I’ve had to grow up a lot,” he said. A visit by his grandmother in the winter improved his cooking skills. “She taught me how to dip the chicken in the egg and bread crumbs."
He sees familiar faces around town, and after scoring his first goal Feb. 8, he was warmly welcomed into a restaurant by the owner.
Stayen Stadium is older (opened in 1927) and smaller (14,600) than D.C.'s Audi Field (2018; 20,000). It also has artificial turf instead of grass.
As one of three Americans in Belgium’s top tier — Club Brugge goalkeeper Ethan Horvath and Kortrijk defender Brendan Hines-Ike are the others — “I feel like I am always on the end of jokes about [President] Trump,” Durkin said, laughing.
“There is always a stigma with Americans over here playing soccer. A lot of guys ask me, ‘Why are you over here? Why aren’t you in the U.S.?’ The U.S. is a great country, and they picture it as it is in the movies. They say, ‘I would stay over there, for sure, if I were American.’ I tell them I want to challenge myself.”
Reflecting on his United career, Durkin noted a starting assignment in Audi Field’s inaugural match in July 2018 and his first MLS goal a year later against goalkeeping legend Tim Howard (Colorado).
“I’ve got so much history with that club. I’m thankful for them to sign me at age 16. I grew so much,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t always easy, a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes as a young player you have to be told to slow down a bit. I wasn’t willing to at times, and that led to frustration, but it was an awesome jump-start to my professional career.”
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