Getty Images

D.C. academy product Najar rising to the challenge

At first glance, Andy Najar looks just about old enough be on the D.C. United U-16 academy team for which he was starring until recently.

Quiet, slightly built and profoundly unassuming, the D.C. United rookie bears the cautious demeanor most teenagers would need to adopt if they were to leave home for a foreign land in the midst of adolescence, as Najar did three years ago when his family emigrated from Choluteca, on Honduras’ sultry Pacific coast, to the suburban world of Alexandria, Va.

He’s still working his way towards his high school degree, he remains more comfortable answering media queries in Spanish and his teenage frame is still coming to terms with the harsh physical grind of Major League Soccer, as evinced by the nagging ankle injury that kept him out of United’s match against FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday.

But Najar has met—and largely matched—the many challenges presented to him, especially on the field of play. He’s risen through United’s system with startling speed, blazing a trail from academy trainee to first-team starter in a manner often envisioned, but rarely seen, in MLS circles. Even he admits to being surprised by his significant role in this year’s D.C. squad, having logged 211 minutes in four matches thus far, much of which has been spent in the high-pressure environment of central midfield.

“I was coming up in a youth academy team – it was more that they were going to prepare me to make that big jump to the first level,” admitted the 17-year-old in an interview with “I’m feeling more confident and comfortable as the days progress, but I didn’t expect that I would be having a lot of the impact that I’m having so far on the first team… I’m just looking forward to progressing.”

Najar, who was promoted from United’s U-16 team to their U-18 level almost as rapidly as he advanced to the senior squad, credits his academy experience for the tactical and positional understanding that has helped him contribute in various roles this season. Yet for all the promise represented in his progress, the roots of Najar’s ability run far deeper than his time with United.

He was introduced to the game at a young age by his father Wilson, who played for Broncos, the Honduran second-division side in Choluteca’s capital city, and Andy’s younger brothers joined in not long after they entered the world as well. 

“I started playing at age three, because obviously my dad played,” Najar explained. “Me and my brothers would go with our dad. He’s the one that taught us how to play, how to hit the ball properly. We were always with him, watching him play. He’s the one that taught us.

“Ever since I can remember, since I was five years old, my dream was to be a professional someday. I’m thankful to God that I’ve gotten this opportunity.”

Wilson Najar, who still plays in a Washington-area men’s league these days, began his career as an attacker before moving back to defense in his later years, and that versatility seems to have rubbed off on his oldest son. Andy prefers a forward role, but he’s already played several positions for the Black-and-Red this season as head coach Curt Onalfo has looked for various ways to make the most of Najar’s youthful energy and confidence on the ball.

Najar is quick to express his gratitude at the surprising degree of trust and confidence invested in him by Onalfo, but the teenager has given another member of the D.C. coaching staff one of the highest compliments a player can offer: on game days he dons the no. 14 shirt long worn by Ben Olsen, the club icon who retired over the winter after a long and distinguished career in the United midfield.

“I used to come to all the games and watch him,” Najar recalled. “I loved the way that Ben played and that’s the reason why I chose it.”

United’s dire start to the campaign has forced Onalfo and company to reconsider their preference for a more nuanced style of play, and their coming matches seem likely to feature a more straightforward, workmanlike approach, much like the one that brought D.C. their first win of the year against Kansas City on Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether Najar’s attributes can be easily meshed with this shift, but there is little question that he represents the future for a club which takes pride in having fielded several of the youngest players in MLS history.

“Andy’s a very special kid,” said Bill Hamid, the 19-year-old goalkeeper who is the other poster boy for Onalfo’s youth movement. “I signed when I was 18 and he’s been around since 15. For him to be two or three years before me and seeing him on the field – seeing the talent he has and the potential of what he could be – that kid could be unstoppable one day.”