By Ridge Mahoney
At the U.S. Soccer Development Academy finals last summer at Home Depot Center, I got my first look at a very talented, very young D.C. United player named Andy Najar.
His highlight moment, or nearly so, came when he controlled a difficult ball on his chest and while under pressure, first-timed a volley out of the air that a very sharp goalkeeper turned onto the post with an excellent save. But there were dozens of other moments in the games that I watched either live or on DVD where he astutely solved a tricky situation by instinct and reaction, nicking the ball out of a double-team and getting a second touch to retain possession, or using an unorthodox flick to control a crazy bounce or carom.
There were also times when his brazen dribbles ran aground, or a mis-read or rash decision lost his team possession or terminated a promising sequence. As with just about everything else, soccer education is as much failure as success, a relentless, demanding gauntlet of trial-and-error embedded with frustration and denial.
Najar, 16 at the time, stood out not because his skill shone through an otherwise moribund, lifeless team. United’s players were technically sound, tactically aware, and used their touch and savvy to keep the ball as they probed for spaces and angles to advance the ball toward the penalty area. They didn’t always succeed, of course, and there were a few hasty clearances and premature crosses, flubbed traps and communication breakdowns, but they played with a plan and brought ideas to the game.
In a competitive environment – each U-16 and U-18 team played four games in seven days against other regional champions -- Najar looked to be a player who had a real chance to make the first team someday and get a shot at MLS. That’s all he resembled; not a dead-certain national-team star, not a ten-figure European transfer target, not a future World Cup representative, not a global marketing icon. He wasn’t alone. There were a handful of players imbued not with marvelous skills, but rather a cognitive appreciation of everything a difficult, perplexing sport requires.
All of those things, and far more, were laid at the feed of another young United player, Freddy Adu, when he went pro at a much earlier age, 14, and jumped right into the starting lineup. Since then, a new term has crept into the league’s lexicon, “MLS-ready”, which Freddy certainly was not at the time, and what Najar – who crashed a shot off the crossbar in his MLS debut as a starter – is getting the chance to prove he might be.
By mandating teams field U-16 and U-18 academy teams, and offering them two additional roster spots for “HomeGrown” players, MLS is edging closer to a true commitment on developing players, in stark contrast to its absurd mega-hyping of Adu just six years ago. MLS needed the publicity, and got it, but denied Adu what he needed: the patient, demanding, and intelligent cultivation of talent and ambition and personality necessary to blossoming into a bona fide professional player.
By next season, if MLS has brought back something akin to the Reserve Division, which it scuttled after the 2008 season, it can give its “second-squad” players the same regular diet of competitive action that most of their U-16 and U-18 teams are now getting. If Najar proves he is “MLS-ready” at age 17, this tier wouldn’t serve his needs, but for many more players in this stage of development, it will be essential.