One evening this January, soccer coaches crowded the Baltimore Convention Center for the nation’s largest soccer trade show. They drank beer from plastic cups as they cruised past booths displaying coaching DVDs and the latest AstroTurf technology.
Andy sat on a folding chair under the Volkswagen tent. He took a half-inch stack of Andy Najar photographs and began autographing them. He was here at the request of Volkswagen, which had chosen him to promote an international youth-soccer tournament. For the first half hour, his booth was deserted, even as the adjacent station—with free scarves and cinch bags—attracted a ten-person line. Andy’s knee bounced anxiously.
Passersby leaned forward to read his name. “What’s he weigh?” one man whispered. “A buck thirty?”
It had been a busy off-season for Andy. In early November, his agent called with news: Andy had been named MLS’s Rookie of the Year. “I didn’t have words,” he says. He was the youngest player ever to receive the honor. In addition to the $10,000 prize, Andy received a plane ticket to Toronto, where the awards event would be held.
The award gave him cover to delay his big decision. The Honduran national team had asked him to play in a November 17 match against Panama. Andy explained that the MLS banquet would take place two days after Honduras’s match, making it impossible for him to play. But such excuses can’t work forever; Honduras plans to call Andy again. He’s expected to make his decision this spring, when he’ll know more about the likelihood of expedited citizenship.
In December, D.C. United signed Andy to a multi-year deal with an annual value in the low six figures. The contract makes Andy, who turns 18 after the season opener in March, among the team’s highest-paid players. That same month, his family moved into a bigger apartment in Franconia. The property is in a nicer development, with a community gym, a pool, and space out back for barbecues. For the first time, Andy has his own bedroom.
He shouldn’t get too comfortable, coach Rongen says. With European clubs already interested, it’s only a matter of time before a top overseas team buys out his contract: “He’ll be a guy that Major League Soccer won’t hang onto for long.”
Three Najars now wear D.C. United jerseys. Andy’s brother Denis joined the academy’s under-16 team, and his youngest brother is with the under-15s. On days they don’t have practice, Andy takes them to the park near their house to train.
Andy says his D.C. United academy coaches improved his game. But his artful ball control and gutsy determination can hardly be attributed to a year and a half with the academy. Says Rongen: “If anyone thinks that they made Andy Najar, they are mistaken.”
Instead, credit the ragged pitch in Santa Cruz, the desert between Mexico and Texas, and the conviction that you can achieve a better life if you make enough sacrifices. “I always dreamed that I could make it,” Andy says. “And thank God, when I got to this country I got the opportunity.”
This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.