UPDATE April 5, 2:55 PM: Andy Najar has chosen to play for Honduras. Read more on that here.
It was 28 degrees on the soccer field, and the wind was blowing sideways. The training staff told coaches to keep practice short—no more than an hour. “I can’t feel my toes!” said a bundled-up player on the sidelines.
For Andy Najar, the toughest adjustment to life here had been to the cold; there was nothing like it in the Honduran village where he grew up. But at 6:30 pm—half an hour before practice—Najar walked into the December bitterness in a D.C. United parka. At RFK’s auxiliary soccer fields, 500 yards from DC’s old stadium, overhead lights illuminated an AstroTurf field. The rumble of power generators silenced the Metro trains gliding by. Najar was among the first there.
No one would have blamed him for taking the night off. Several weeks earlier, he had been named Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year. And just that morning, he had learned that World Soccer magazine had listed him among the sport’s top 78 young stars.
Najar had risen through the soccer ranks seemingly overnight, and no one knew too much about him. His agent chose his words cautiously when talking about Najar’s past. ESPN.com described the aura around him as a “combination of on-the-field attention and off-the-field mystery.” The confusion was even more apparent in his native Honduras. “Everyone was asking, ‘Who is Andy Najar?’ ” says Saul Carranza, a reporter for Diez, a Honduran newspaper.
Najar wasn’t required to attend this practice. Like other members of D.C. United’s professional squad—the first team—he had been off since the season ended in October. He had come to train with D.C. United’s academy team, the upstart program committed to changing the way elite American soccer players are trained. For D.C. United executives, Najar wasn’t just an explosive scorer. He was proof that their approach to molding talent was working.
At five-foot-seven, Najar was shorter than most other players. And although weight training had thickened his chest, his 150-pound frame still resembled a jockey’s.
But when the coach whistled the start of the scrimmage, Najar became ferocious. Within seconds, he swiped the ball from an opponent and bent a pass to a teammate who chipped it past the goalie. When Najar had the ball, defenders slid backward. He curled long crosses to teammates who didn’t realize they were open. At midfield, he plucked the ball from one opponent, streaked through several others, and zipped one into the back of the net. With that, practice ended.