Tampa Bay Sports Day

Andy Najar aims for rookie of the year

Andy Najar has been the singular bright spot for DC United and may, and in many ways should, win the only trophy for this once formidable club during this dark and miserable season.

Contrary to the opinion of many, the media is not, and should not, be a cheerleader for this team or any other one. However, Najar should get serious consideration for MLS Rookie of the Year despite the failures of his team and organization.

“It’s a great joy. Ever since I started playing here I have wanted to win awards in this league and I will fight to the last game, to the last minute to see if I can earn that award,” said Najar, 17, through an interpreter of his consideration for the award.

“I think he has a real shot,” added United Assistant Coach and Technical Director Chad Ashton. “Not only is he our most dangerous attacking threat right now. But I would say he’s one of the more dangerous guys out wide in the league right now.”

Ashton will coach United in Colorado this Saturday following the ejection of Head Coach Ben Olsen after their 3-1 loss home loss to Houston last Saturday. Olsen apparently exchanged words with Dynamo head man Dominic Kinnear outside of the technical area earning the required one game suspension and $500 fine, which after review by the league this week, was increased to $1250. Olsen himself was the MLS Rookie of the Year in 1998.

The only other players in serious contention for the award are New York Red Bull defender Tim Ream and Philadelphia striker Danny Mwanga. Ream has started and played all 90-minutes in his 26 league matches this season while Mwanga has scored seven goals and added 4 assists in his 20 league matches of which he started 14. He does have an excellent shooting percentage scoring those goals on just 23 shots of which only 13 went on goal.

“He’s a dangerous, dangerous player and unlike Mwanga, who plays up front, and you can say okay, he has this many goals, Andy does a lot of things that don’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet,” Ashton added. “He probably even deserves more credit than what his actual stats are.”

While the flashier Mwanga is perhaps the sexier pick, MLS has awarded exactly half of the 14 previous trophies to defenders, including the last two and four of the last five. So with Ream playing meaningful minutes in more relevant games, he is not just an afterthought. However, Mwanga does not have the same total field responsibility as Najar and is frankly, not as dynamic on the ball as the young Honduran midfielder.

Najar has progressed nicely throughout the season especially in the defensive third of the field, playing in the back during a couple of the U.S. Open Cup matches. His only blatantly obvious moment of youth and lack of understanding was a poor defensive decision late in a match against Salt Lake in early August, allowing the home side to extend their lead despite United’s having most of the play for the previous 15-minutes.

However, that was not all his fault either as then coach Curt Onalfo, deciding to press the game to get that equalizer, removed a defender in favor of Jaime Moreno leaving Najar in a vulnerable position on the flank.

This kid can flat out play, and in reality, has a soccer IQ beyond his years and has been getting double teamed by most defenses instantaneously when he gets the ball on the flank, an honor typically only reserved for Moreno in recent years.

“He offsets defenses, he can take guys on the dribble, he can put good service in, he gets up and down the line and plays both ways offense and defense. I think the sky is the limit for him,” Ashton added. “There are still a lot of things he can do, a lot of things he can clean up but if his learning curve continues to be as good as it is, you are going to see big things from him in the future, not only in MLS but probably around the world.”

Last winter, United invited some 50 or so local college players, all with honors and accolades for some training sessions that also included Najar and according to Ashton, he was still the best player on the field. So Ashton and the technical staff had to figure out a way to convince the then recently hired Onalfo that they had a 17-year old kid that would be a major player in his team.

“So you can imagine over the phone during the winter once we hired a new coach and trying to explain to him that, ‘yes we have a very young player that is going to be a contributing factor to your team.’ We didn’t expect what Andy has done for sure and I don’t think anyone expected it to be as good as it has been,” said Ashton.

“His learning curve is unbelievable. Every training session he learns and what he has been able to take with what he’s learned on a day by day basis playing with professionals has been unbelievable.”

After being eased into the starting side by Onalfo, his talents became more and more evident with each game.

“I started without a lot of confidence but with the training and once the coaches and executives gave me the opportunity and that growth and the ability to play time and time again, I have gotten better and better and my confidence has grown and every time I step out onto the field, every minute, I have gotten better,” Najar said.

Though he speaks very little English, he has relied on the team’s two most experienced and decorated players, Moreno and Juan Manuel Pena, to help him learn and get through the moribund season.

“These guys have talked to me about being smart on the ball and understanding the game-when to get forward and very tactical things. Those guys have really helped me,” he said.