WASHINGTON – D.C. United’s current roster boasts MLS’ current Golden Boot presented by Audi leader, Ola Kamara, one of the league’s top crossers and set-piece maestros in Julian Gressel, US men’s national team wing mainstay Paul Arriola, a beloved former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in Bill Hamid and plenty more talent to boot.
The player who sparks the Audi Field faithful to their feet quickest, though, is the unassuming 5-foot-7 defender – quite possibly the smallest center back in the league – wearing the No. 14 shirt he inherited from his former coach, Ben Olsen. The reasons might not be visible from his modest 2021 stat line of 1g/3a in 1,717 minutes, or his quiet persona off the pitch.
But Andy Najar is the one who really gets showtime going for D.C.
Finally firing on all cylinders again after years lost to a litany of injuries, Najar has come to epitomize the capital club’s new era under Hernan Losada.
He’s redefined the right center back position in Losada’s aggressive, press-centric system, his skill and unpredictability an X-factor in the Black-and-Red’s rise from second-to-bottom in the 2020 overall table to fierce Eastern Conference upstarts this time around. Whether surging into attack with the ball at his feet or creating the right-flank overloads that have helped Gressel regain his best level, Najar is perhaps D.C.’s most unique weapon – and an inspiring tale of personal renewal.
“I’m happy,” Najar told MLSsoccer.com in a recent one-on-one conversation in Spanish. “Ever since Hernan put me in that position, I’ve agreed to do it – in that moment it was the best option for me, the best position to keep me on the field. When I play in my usual [wide] spot, it requires a lot more effort. Centrally it gives me more options, lets me run less. It was just the best option.
“I’m happy to come back here to Washington. It’s been a help after passing through a tough moment in my professional career. It’s helped me tremendously. It’s helped me to have my family over here in D.C., so that’s helped me quite a bit to get my confidence back, to get that confidence back in my own body and to keep working every day and keep building myself back up to avoid a future injury.”
It’s also earned him a return to his national team, where he’s played in five of Honduras' six Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifiers so far.
The "Najar Role"
MLSsoccer.com's Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle recently went so far as to coin the phrase “Najar Role,” cataloging examples of other teams flashing similarly unconventional tactical tweaks to turn defenders into playmakers.
For Najar and United, the idea grew out of basic necessity: How to make the most of the 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year’s silky dribbling and precise distribution without overtaxing the legs that have suffered countless hamstring, quad and other soft-tissue injuries as well as two ACL tears over the years?
“He’s an important piece in our team. He has been working hard to achieve this level of fitness. Also thanks to our system and thanks to the position where he's playing right now, he can manage the efforts,” explained Losada earlier this year. “It’s not the same playing there as playing as a wingback or playing as a winger or playing as a forward. So I think we made with the whole club all together a good plan for him. He is following that plan until the very last detail.”
Najar returned to his hometown over the winter after a brief, injury-marred stint with LAFC, his career hanging in the balance after those injury woes wrecked what was once a meteoric ascent at Belgian heavyweights Anderlecht and the Honduran national team. Under the guidance of Losada’s second-in-command Nicolas Frutos, who he worked with in Belgium, Najar embarked on a careful periodization plan to renew his body and prove – to both himself and the rest of the world – he wasn’t done yet.
“It’s been a difficult process from the start,” Najar admitted. “It’s been a process where I’ve had to learn how to eat differently, train differently than my teammates during the preseason; there were a lot of things that I had to change.
“That was always the goal – to get that work done and be here in great form with this team, with the injuries that plagued me for many years behind me. Honestly I feel very happy,” he added with a quick smile. “I’m enjoying what I do right now, playing out there, giving my maximum effort for my teammates, for the fans. It’s brought me joy.”
That long, difficult road reached a big milestone on Aug. 8, when Najar scored his first goal since his return to D.C. in a comeback win over CF Montréal. He raced to the sideline to celebrate with Frutos, the figure his teammates joke has become his second father.
“That was a beautiful moment,” said Najar. “I hadn’t scored a goal in practically three years. In my mind I just knew I had to find him and embrace him. It’s a thanks to him for everything he’s done for me since I arrived in DC. I think the connection there is between Nico and me has been really important in this entire process and I am grateful to him. I will always be thankful to him for all of this.”
It was also a sign that United’s gamble was paying off – that a homecoming could benefit both player and club. The hope is his continued progress in the staff’s meticulous performance analysis testing will eventually allow for a shift back to Najar’s more traditional positional roles, but for now, just getting him on the field is a success.
“We are seeing the same super-talented player who makes a lot of unpredictable, special plays, but with the tactical maturity of playing in Europe,” United president of soccer operations Dave Kasper told MLSsoccer.com.
“Hernan took a long-term view during preseason to build up his strength and fitness,” he added. “From day one he said Andy would not play in any preseason games, but rather focus on closing the gap on his muscular deficiencies between legs. Hernan has smartly managed his minutes during three-game weeks and given Andy time off when needed. Hernan also met with the Honduras coach to share our training loads and discuss how we could work together to keep Andy on the field.”
"A great adventure"
It’s yet another inspiring chapter in what was already a Cinderella story. Najar was first spotted playing high-school soccer in Alexandria, Virginia in 2008, a year after he made the perilous overland journey from Honduras to the United States at age 13 to join his mother, father and other family members in refuge from their homeland’s violence and instability.
Working in construction, his father had saved up nearly $8,000 to pay a coyote, or smuggler, to lead Andy on a dangerous two-week journey through Guatemala and Mexico to the Texas border, where they hiked through desert terrain on foot for two days before he finished the journey to Northern Virginia by car. Eventually both his younger brothers would emigrate, too.
United welcomed Najar into their then-fledgling academy in 2008, his first organized club soccer in the US. The following year, D.C. made Najar just the eighth Homegrown Player signing in MLS history, a week after his 17th birthday. His rapid rise soon took him to the 2012 Olympics, then a reported $3 million move to Anderlecht and the bright lights of the 2014 World Cup and UEFA Champions League.
He’d become both a rags-to-riches hero and a walking embodiment of the latent potential of young talent across the United States and Canada.
“Well, it’s been a great adventure, I’ll put it to you that way,” Najar said with a laugh. “Leaving from Honduras and entering the United States at my young age, it was a tough decision. To leave my friends, my grandmother, my brothers who stayed behind, that was tough. But I knew that there were opportunities in this country, and in D.C.
“I was with D.C. United for three years, which gave me the chance to play in Europe, in Belgium for almost eight years. It was a beautiful adventure. Not many people have the privilege and opportunity to achieve what every immigrant dreams of. I had the American dream, really.”
Though his soccer abilities have helped him gain citizenship and economic stability, various immigration logistics have separated him from his loved ones repeatedly over the years, not only during his adolescence in Honduras, but for much of his time in Belgium. His return to the country where he made his name, and the comfortable familiarity of the D.C. area, where his extended family resides, has been a key facet of his comeback.
“Honestly I think the U.S. is a land of opportunity. It doesn’t matter if a person is documented or undocumented,” said Najar, now 28. “It’s a country that treats all equally. When I came and didn’t have papers, D.C. gave me the opportunity and within three months I had residency on their behalf.
“I think it’s a country that doesn’t care about your status in that way. At least that’s how it was – I don’t know how it is nowadays, I imagine it’s more complicated with COVID and all of that. But it’s a land of opportunity and when the opportunity arrives, you have to take advantage of it.”
D.C. find themselves in a comparable position as the 2021 campaign winds down. As exhilarating as United’s best moments have been, as intriguing as Losada’s tactics and leadership style have appeared, the Black-and-Red are winless in October, an ill-timed four-game skid that’s pushed them out of the Eastern Conference’s Audi MLS Cup Playoff places. Now facing an urgent need for points in their final weeks, the win-or-else postseason mentality has effectively arrived early in the U.S. capital.
Najar’s minutes have been limited, carefully doled out by the technical staff amid his heavy travel and playing time with Honduras. Even when his creative brilliance gets Audi Field rocking and opponents flailing, Losada and Frutos loathe to leave him on the pitch a minute longer than their data models dictate. That, too, is part and parcel of the Najar resurgence. But will those measured doses be enough to help D.C. clamber into the playoffs?
"I still have it in me to play at a European level"
Whenever the offseason does arrive, other decisions await. Najar signed a contract around the league minimum for a player of his age and experience when he rejoined United, and the club hold options for 2022 and 2023. He would likely argue, with good reason, he’s earned a raise, and would almost certainly have suitors abroad if he desired.
“We would like Andy to finish his career in D.C.,” said Kasper, who plans to discuss the future with Najar and his agent, Chris Megaloudis, this winter. “He’s at the club where it all began for him in our academy, and his family resides in the DMV – a lot of reasons to stay here.”
Najar’s joyful approach to the game is perhaps his most inspiring quality, one of the traits that first got him noticed 13 years on that field at Thomas A. Edison High School in Alexandria. And with his body finally allowing him to play it again on a regular basis, he sounds eager for that to continue above all else.
“I’d like to stay; we’ll have to see if they offer me something for next year,” he said. “If not, I’ll begin to search abroad, in Europe, wherever. I still have it in me to play at a European level and I’ll continue to train as hard as I can. Whatever happens, happens. If I stay here in D.C., I’ll be happy, but I’ll also be happy to go play in Europe. We’ll see. Both options, for me, will always make me happy.”