Rising teen star Chris Durkin is focused on big year with D.C. United, U.S. U-20s and U-23s

Without question, Chris Durkin  has a lot on his plate these days as 2019 is shaping up to be an important year for the talented midfielder on many different levels. For one, he is on a D.C. United team that should be one of the better teams in the league. Second, he is expected to be a key component of the U.S. U-20 World Cup team followed by a potential quick transition to the U-23 team. Then, of course, there are the ongoing rumors of a potential transfer to Europe.

At the moment, the young player who will turn 19 on Feb. 8, is currently in preseason with D.C. United where he is trying to make his case to be one of the starting holding midfielders.

Last season he was a starter for D.C. United for the first half of the season but saw his playing time decrease once Russell Canouse returned from injury. Between Durkin, Canouse, and Venezuelan international Junior Moreno, the three compete for two spots in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

In 2018, D.C. United started slowly, but acquired Wayne Rooney, moved into its own stadium, and rallied to make the playoffs where it lost in the first round to Columbus via a shootout. Durkin played nearly 1,700 minutes in 2018 in all competitions.

“Last year made me mature a lot – quickly,” Durkin told Soccer America. “I wasn't expecting initially to get that many minutes, at least at the start of the season. I had to grow up fast. The No. 6 is a position that generally requires a lot of experience and I had to be a sponge to take in all the information to make sure I was able to give the best for the team. And I thought it got better and better as the season went on. When Russell came back, there was more competition, which was good. I think he's a great player as well. My goal is to be a starter for D.C. United.”

“Growing up in this developmental process, it is great to have these guys pushing me,” he added. “I can never have a practice where I am not focused or not sharp. I am building off of last year in terms of becoming more of a ball-winner in the midfield, being stronger, and getting on the ball more as well.”

Chris Durkin, who turns 19 this month, made 23 MLS appearances for D.C. United in the 2018 season. (Photo Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

So far, Durkin is off to a strong start in 2019, which began with a U-20 camp in Florida. Due to the timing of the playoffs, D.C. United did not release Durkin for the start last year’s Concacaf U-20 Championship. While head coach Tab Ramos could have added him for the second stage, he declined because he wanted prevent changing the group’s chemistry. In the end, the team not only qualified for the World Cup but won the Concacaf title.

The camp in Florida was the team’s first gathering since qualifying and Durkin needed to impress because Ramos was pleased with his existing group from Concacaf. In the end, Durkin was one of the team’s best performers and Ramos singled him out in post-camp interviews. At the camp, Durkin even experimented in central defense and noted that while Ramos said he does not see him as a center back, his versatility is an asset.

“It means a lot to get back into the pool,” Durkin explained. “When I was 17, I was with the national team more than any other team. It was my team. Before the last camp, I hadn't been with the U-20s in almost over a year. But it was good to prove to Tab and the coaches that I belong and I want to have a big impact that can help the team at the World Cup. I could tell that the pool of players was really good and really deep. We didn't even have a lot of the guys who were over in Europe and I was impressed with the level of play at camp. I think we have a really competitive team we can put out at the World Cup. I know Tab is excited about it and I am excited about.”

Schalke winger Nick Taitague was also one of the camp’s standout performer and both Taitague and Durkin from the Richmond, Virginia, area and have grown up playing together from very young ages. The two even trained together in Virginia back in December to prepare for the U-20 camp.

Taitague noticed Durkin’s improvement right away in camp.

"We always used to train together,” Taitague said. “We didn't play for the same club but we were always around each other. We played 3 vs. 3 together and we played futsal together. We've always known each other. It's great to see where he's at. He's always had it. I told him that when he was 12 or 14 years old and he wasn't getting called into the national team. He's adapted into a first team environment and you can tell. He's so professional about everything he does now. He's a leader. It's great to see and I think he's a great player."

Durkin, who was the captain of the 2017 U.S. U-17 team that advanced to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, believes in the potential of the current U-20 team and notes that if Ramos had all of his age-eligible players available -- including full U.S. internationals like Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, and Tim Weah -- that the U.S. team could contend for the World Cup.

The issue of getting players released for major youth internationals has been an important topic in the news recently. In 2017 Ramos was not able to have Weston McKennie or Taitague released from Schalke and Christian Pulisic had full national team responsibilities.

This year, however, MLS teams are showing reluctance to release players and Durkin acknowledges that he will have to have discussions soon with D.C. United over allowing him to participate. While refusing releases hurts national teams, Durkin believes it is a sign of progress.

“You look at some other top countries and you see they have amazing players that even they can't have released to the U-20 World Cup,” Durkin said. “I think it's a good problem to have because it means your younger players are starting to break into these first teams and have important roles. It just shows we’re continuing to develop as a country. But I don't have any worries about our pool. I think our pool is strong and deep. We will be competitive at the World Cup regardless.”

Of course, the U-20 World Cup will only take Durkin halfway through his big 2019. Following that tournament, which is heavily scouted, will be the summer transfer window where Durkin could emerge as a target from European teams with a successful World Cup combined with performances from D.C. United.

There has already been interest in Durkin from abroad but that could be increased with strong performances in Poland, where the U-20 World Cup kicks off May 25.

“There have been offers recently,” Durkin’s agent Chris Megaloudis said. “We had a very positive conversation and there is a good understanding in place between player and club. Chris is incredibly talented and has all the tools to be a success wherever he wants to play. I won’t say [a deal] is likely or unlikely, simply that he is/has been on the radar of many clubs.”

Then in the fall there awaits possible high-profile games in the MLS playoffs as well as with the U.S. U-23 team that will attempt to prepare to qualify for its first Olympics since 2008. Durkin admits that he looked at his 2019 calendar and noted that making the U-23 team and qualifying for the Olympics was a priority for him.

But future involvement and success will likely revolve first around the U-20 World Cup and like many of his teammates, Durkin is optimistic.

“I am looking forward to seeing what happens and who we can bring together to hopefully win this World Cup,” Durkin said. “Because the U-20s went to the quarterfinals in 2017 and we went to the quarterfinals with the U-17s. I think we can really just build off of that. If we do, it's going to be a great year for our national teams.”

(Brian Sciaretta is a veteran journalist of all-things American soccer and is a senior editor for American Soccer Now.)

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