The gift from Najar’s sponsor suggests what a growing number of players, coaches, and league observers have been saying for some time now: This kid could go places. With a stellar second year under his belt, the midfielder could quickly become a player coveted by European clubs, taking his sponsors—VW and Adidas—along for the ride.
Najar is at the top of a young, emerging class of MLS talent that sponsors are racing to snatch up while their fees are still relatively low. Other players in this category include New York Red Bulls teammates Juan Agudelo, 18, and Tim Ream, 23.
“Endemic sponsors [such as Nike and Adidas] are ultimately looking for players that are going to be hugely successful,” says John Guppy, founder of the soccer marketing firm Gilt Edge and former president and CEO of the Chicago Fire. “And it’s a competitive landscape, so they have to get these guys when they’re young. I have a client—I can’t tell you who it is—but we went through a discussion the other day about young players who might be somebody for us to take a look at, and Andy’s name was right on that list. He’s definitely in people’s minds.”
Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, says that Najar, a native of Honduras, has particular appeal because of his Hispanic roots and his potential to play in Europe, should he continue to develop. “[MLS commissioner Don] Garber would hate me saying this,” Swangard adds, alluding to the concern that naturally comes along with shepherding ascending players such as Najar: They could eventually move on to bigger and better leagues.
Najar has a news conference scheduled Tuesday afternoon to announce whether he’ll compete with the US national team or for his home country. When his decision is finally public, you can bet that new sponsors will be lining up with pens and endorsement offers in hand.
Adidas, for its part, is happy to have Najar as one of its “Generation Adidas” faces. “Everyone sees Andy’s great potential while he’s on the field, but it truly is his passion for the sport and his appreciation for the game and its participants that set him apart from a lot of talented young players out there,” writes Casey Armstrong, asset manager for Adidas Soccer, in an e-mail. “Youth players around the country see an 18-year-old win the Rookie of the Year award and think to themselves, ‘That’s something that I can do one day.’ ”
When Najar climbed into his new car for the first time in March, he closed the door and smiled from behind the glass, not sure what to do. Spanish-language media swarmed the Jetta as members of D.C. United’s front office sang “Happy Birthday.” (See video above.) Eventually, someone climbed into the driver’s seat and helped him start the ignition.
Najar is still a ways off from Europe, and he knows that endorsement deals alone aren’t going to get him there. Avoiding a sophomore slump and rising to the top of the American league will.
Najar says his mom reminds him of this all the time: “[She] always tells me, ‘It’s [your] second year. You have to work hard. And last year, they [learned how] you play, so you have to be ready for everything. Play strong and work hard.’ ”