Teenagers have broken out in MLS in 2010, including Philadelphia's Danny Mwanga, who came in at #5 in the 24 Under 24. But none of the "kids" has impressed as much as D.C. United's crafty versatile attacker Andy Najar.
Road to Stardom: Andy Najar is part of a new generation of MLS players that "graduated" from the club's academy system and into the senior team. After joining D.C.'s academy in 2008, the Honduran-born midfielder flourished quickly, and in 2010 he signed a Generation adidas contract. He made his professional debut in D.C.'s season opener at just 17 years old.
Breakout Moment: Najar's MLS debut was, in some ways, a harbinger of what was to come. Though United were ultimately thrashed 4-0 by Kansas City, Najar hit the crossbar with a 25-yard volley early in the game. Najar was subbed out at halftime, but the audacity of his effort didn't go unnoticed. Then-D.C. boss Curt Onalfo stuck with his young winger, who repaid his former boss' faith by scoring a highlight-worthy goal in a U.S. Open Cup game against RSL on June 2. After collecting the ball wide right, Najar split two defenders before finishing his effort with the outside of his cleat. The goal became an overnight sensation and signaled Najar's arrival as "the future of U.S. soccer."
Player Breakdown: Confidence. Despite his age and his size — he's listed at 5-foot-7-inches and 150 pounds — Najar isn't afraid to take on anyone in the league. He clearly boasts a natural talent when the ball is at his feet and he never shies away from using it. Also, Najar seems to possess burgeoning leadership skills that belie his age and inexperience. However, what makes Najar special — at least for now — is that this confidence has yet to evolve into arrogance. The D.C. brass are doing all they can to keep Najar grounded, and in turn, Najar appears willing to focus on attaining a complete game.
What the Technical Directors Say: "I think he’s better suited as a second forward. They put him up top on occasions and he’s a very good off-the-ball runner … [He's] dangerous off the ball because of his mobility and the timing of his runs … Najar has a wonderful, elusive quality to him … [but] he still needs to figure out how to ride challenges better. That’s not to say the kid isn’t tough, but because of the size, he’s going to be physically challenged a little bit more as teams struggle to contain him through other means."
What’s Next: There's plenty of chatter around the league that Najar is Europe-bound. However, this is perhaps premature given the short time he's played professional soccer. Najar needs show he can continue to improve and perform at a high level — and that means avoiding a "sophomore slump" next season. Opposition players have already begun shutting him down physically, so he has to show he can rise above the niggling fouls and still contribute to his team. The other question surrounds his international future. As a green card holder, Najar is halfway toward earning U.S. citizenship, which would make him eligible to play for the Yanks. Until then, though, Honduras is undoubtably keeping an eye on the teenage star.
Check back on Thursday as the No. 2 player in the 24 Under 24 is unveiled.
What is the 24 Under 24? Simply, the best 24 players in MLS under the age of 24 (as of Nov. 1, 2010).
MLSsoccer.com whittled down the list to a group of 30 players and then an expert panel ranked the names based on five categories: (1) Skill; (2) Upside; (3) Q-Rating or Marketability; (4) Future Value; and (5) Intangibles.
The “24 Under 24” expert panel was made up of six members: Jeff Carlisle (ESPN.com), Steve Davis (SI.com), Brian Dunseth (Fox Soccer Channel), Allen Hopkins (ESPN), Alexi Lalas (ESPN) and the MLSsoccer.com editorial staff.
MLS Technical Directors Say: “Najar has a wonderful, elusive quality to him … [but] he still needs to figure out how to ride challenges better. That’s not to say the kid isn’t tough.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “He’s got the pace, he can get around guys and use his right foot, also decent with his left … Look for more consistency when he gets to the end line and has to use his left foot to pick out guys and make passes … Needs to work on being a factor for the entire 90 minutes.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “He has the potential to be one of the best strikers in the league … Off the ball running and finishing are much better than anticipated … He’s composed in front of goal, he can strike the ball well … He needs to work on his passing and getting others involved in the game.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “Really technical with great skill … Has good vision for the game and he can find a splitting pass and can change a game getting by a guy … He’s not going to run you up and down … Plays a lot older than his age … If he played more defense he’d be a more effective player and he’d be around the ball more often and in position more often to take advantage of quick breaks.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “Great size, good engine and brave with the ball … Very good technical ability especially for his height … He’s matured in a comfortable environment, you’re seeing the talent blossom … Having more of an impact on games … Big and fast and left-footed and attacking. You’d kill for that package in anybody, anywhere at any age.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “His athleticism in terms of being a shot-stopper is very good. Where he’s going to need to show improvement is the tactical end with his positioning and when to come out of the goal … With more experience will learn to read the game, direct his back line and know positionally where to be when the ball is in different parts of the field.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “Composed and good in the air … Comfortable on the ball, a very good passer of the ball and a playmaker out of the back … The mistakes he’s made they don’t live with him. … Needs to improve on ability to turn and make quicker decisions … Has to smell danger and learn to whack balls up the field when he needs to and not make passes that aren’t there.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “He’s got a great body for the position as a target forward … Very active and very good in the air and once you get him going forward … Needs to improve on erratic finishing, playing with his back to goal and getting his teammates involved with the passing … He’s a young kid and has a lot of upside.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: "He is still raw but an excellent athlete ... Tremendous upside ... can dominate in the air, good timing in the air ... He's able to outrun mistakes ... From a man-marking situation few can physically beat him ... Needs to work on ability to play out of tight spaces, make passes and make quick decisions."
MLS Technical Directors Say: "Talented player, technically gifted with both feet, has pace, the ability to serve balls on the run … Needs to find some kind of consistency to be regarded as an elite player in this league … Has 50 different moves on the dribble … Needs to find when the best time to dribble and when the best time to find a teammate."
MLS Technical Directors Say: "He’s got a lot of good tools … Very good athlete and technically better than people give him credit. He can take people off the dribble. He’s a good finisher with both feet … Needs to get better with his head and holding the ball up… He’s going to be a very solid MLS player."
MLS Technical Directors Say: “He’s clearly got the tools and he seems to have got some poise … He can be a really successful goalkeeper in this league for a long time if he can get healthy and stay healthy. Young guys have persistent injury problems.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “He’s left-footed, he has pace and he’s American. These are players to be celebrated … Needs to be tougher and defend more … He’s one of those players that will stretch a defense. He has a good engine … He needs to demand the ball a little bit more and get more involved in 90 minutes.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: "Tchani is still very raw ... One of the best players in college last year. An amazing athlete. Huge, massive upside. Almost unlimited potential but he is not very polished which is normal for a kid at that age."
MLS Technical Directors Say: "He’s got the size, the physicality. He’s better than some in terms of technical abilities and he’s got some more size. And he’s probably got some more pace than most guys ... It needs to be consistency with him around the goal area. He’s got the tools physically and technically. He’s above average."
MLS Technical Directors Say: "In our league he’s got to be a forward ... You want him in and around the goal to profit from that athleticism and ability in the air. For a young player, he’s a decent finisher which is relatively rare. He’s a prototypical college player in that he’s a tremendous overall athlete and he works really hard."
The Brazilian is a vital cog for the Galaxy, pulling the strings in central midfield and jumpstarting their deadly counter. He reads the game well and has a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He’s not the strongest and most imposing of central players but his presence is felt as LA can attest during his recent absence.
MLS Technical Directors Say: "A fantastic player, he’s got a great engine. Technically very good. He’s a fantastic two-way player, one of the best in the league even though he’s a young player from an age standpoint ... He needs to be a little bit more productive on the attacking side of the ball: assists and goals ... You’re looking for an 8-and-8 guy. His production needs to be better."
MLS Technical Directors Say: “Has very good concentration, he’s brave and he has elite athleticism … He can get forward with that athleticism but he needs to refine his game in the attacking third in his one-v-one play and his combination play … he needs a little more consistency on his final pass.”
MLS Technical Directors Say: “Like his mentality. He’s always busy, always in motion … His size is a factor but he makes up for it with this work rate and his ability in the air … His finishing is very good … He needs to manage his own expectations and he’ll find his way in MLS.”
The young Colombian wowed fans with his ball skills early on, but he has since lost his place in the Union starting lineup and has become an occasional sub. He possesses superior vision and technique but there are doubts whether his speed and physique can meet the demands of MLS.
A full 2010 season may have bumped up McCarty’s place in the rankings. After a promising start in central midfield alongside Daniel Hernandez, he fell to a quad injury and now has an uphill battle just to regain his spot in the FCD starting lineup.