US prospect, DC United Homegrown Chris Durkin rapidly climbing the ranks

WASHINGTON — Chris Durkin’s first highlight-reel worthy moment for D.C. United came last month, in his third MLS appearance.

With D.C. trailing the Houston Dynamo by a goal late, the teenager dropped a gorgeous, 50-yard ball into Yamil Asad’s path.

Asad couldn’t finish the chance, but D.C. play-by-play man Dave Johnson remained blown away by the service, so moved that he mistakenly credited it to Durkin’s veteran teammate.

“What a ball by [Frederic] Brillant from the back!” Johnson exclaimed.

That Johnson could mistake an 18-year-old midfielder for a 32-year-old defender owes partly to the teammates’ shared high-and-tight hairstyle, and partly to the reality that it’s challenging to meet Durkin and then picture him reveling at a local prom.

With six MLS appearances and two starts under his belt, the Homegrown Player is gaining a trust from coach Ben Olsen often reserved for veterans. Take D.C.’s last game, when Durkin played the final 45 minutes to help 10-man D.C. cling to a one-goal lead and earn three desperately-needed points against Columbus Crew SC.

And for a side looking for new players to grow into leadership roles after the departures of Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell last season, teammates say the Central Virginia native has been unafraid to make his presence known.

“When he came in this preseason, he meant business, and he wanted to play the whole time,” D.C. defender and captain Steve Birnbaum tells MLSsoccer.com

According to plan

For D.C. United, Durkin’s emergence as a first-team player is the result of a plan constructed even before he signed a first-team contract almost two years ago.

For Durkin, it’s the realization of a vision much longer in the making.

Leigh Cowlishaw, coach of the USL’s Richmond Kickers, remembers Durkin dreaming of becoming a pro when he was a 9-year-old with the club’s academy.

“He’s a very focused individual who, from a very early age knew that he wanted to be a professional soccer player,” Cowlishaw tells MLSsoccer.com. “He had that real strong, internal drive to be the best he could be. And that’s rare at that age.”

Durkin made the move north to D.C.’s academy by age 12. He signed with the first-team by age 16, after the club approached him with a plan created by first-team assistant and former academy director Nolan Sheldon.

Chris Durkin, chasing after a ball with Milton Valenzuela of Crew SC, has been a revelation for D.C. United. | USA Today Sports Images

For the next year-plus, Durkin would focus his attention across three squads: the US U-17 national team and their road to the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, the first team of the D.C.-affiliated Kickers and a brief stint in the fall of 2016 at Inter Milan’s youth academy.

“I think all that really helped him develop,” Olsen says. “And it’s ongoing. He’s developing. But so is half of the team I have right now."

It was the specifics of that road map that helped sway Durkin to sign. He believes it also prepared him to give a standout performance last fall as the US U-17s reached the World Cup quarterfinals.

“I knew it was going to give me the best route. With Richmond I got, I think 14 games, before my U-17 World Cup. And I think it showed in my play,” Durkin says. “The plan that was set out before I signed has worked really well. And I think it can only continue to get better.”

Don't empty the tank

If Durkin has drawn any early criticism, it’s a desire to do too much.

Yes, that sounds like a non-answer a corporate job seeker might give in an interview. But when playing a role responsible for keeping a team’s shape and turning defense into attack, it’s a trait that can occasionally drag Durkin out of position, or lead to fatigue and the need for a substitute.

“It’s definitely a difficult balance,” Durkin tells MLSsoccer.com 

Durkin with D.C.'s Dave Kasper and Ben Olsen. | D.C. United

He recalls advice from US U-17 coach John Hackworth that has helped him improve on that front: “Always leave something in the tank for you to make that 50-yard sprint. Never completely empty your tank.”

It’s perhaps fitting then that Olsen is Durkin’s MLS coach. Before injuries forced a move into a more defensive midfield role, Olsen was a talented young winger who — despite generally positive reviews — drew occasional criticism for burning too much energy.

Of course, the same desire that fueled a young Olsen to cover all that ground eventually helped him transform into one of MLS’s savviest central-midfield veterans. Knowing that, Durkin will gladly take any Olsen comparisons.

“I know Ben is a very passionate guy. Obviously I try my best to show Ben I’m also a passionate guy,” Durkin says. “In a way, what I try to do is replicate the way Ben played in terms of the passion and what he showed for the club. I like that about him.”