Chicharito came out of nowhere for many Man U fans but he is going to be a pleasant surprise for the red half of Manchester. The Americas have always been a rich source of footballing talent and most of this talent eventually finds its way across to Europe. In the first of an irregular series and at the risk of being subjected to internet ridicule, I will attempt to highlight some of the best talent playing in the CONCACAF region.
1: Andy Najar – DC United
Andy Najar may only be 17 and playing his first season in Major League Soccer but he is already turning heads. The native Honduran is also the subject of an international tug of war between his homeland and the US. Najar moved to join his family when he was 13 and holds a Green Card, which means that he can, if he wishes, apply for US citizenship, and then play for the US national team. They would certainly like to have him, as would Honduras. Najar hasn’t committed to anyone as yet, and sensibly says that it is too soon for him to worry about this decision. For now he is concentrating on his football with DC United, and he is making quite an impact.
His performances this season have shown he is quick and blessed with great skill. He is only 5’7” but is willing to throw himself into challenges. Najar says his preferred position is either right-sided midfielder or striker but he has featured in a variety of positions in his 21 MLS appearances this season. He has played as a right back, defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder and striker but it would be a surprise if he didn’t make the right sided attacking midfielder spot his own. He is simply too good an attacker to play further down the field. He has scored 3 goals for DC United in the Major League this season. He scored his first goal in an US Open Cup game against Dallas in April this year but it was his goal against Real Salt Lake in June that really caught the attention. Picking up the ball on the right side of the field he ran at two defenders, making his way into the penalty area he dropped his shoulder and cut in between them both, another flick with his right foot and he was clear and one-on-one with the keeper. A cool right-footed finish later and Andy Najar had given DC United fans something to be very excited about.
Fans of world football may be forgiven at this point for taking any prophesies of future world domination with a pinch of salt. If you put young DC United players and predictions of greatness together do you get Freddy Adu? The one time “next-big-thing” and “saviour-of-US-soccer” made his DC debut at 14 and has been unable to live up to the hype thus far. By all accounts Adu has all the skill but is unwilling to put in the necessary work to make the most of his abilities. Najar on the other hand has shown he is willing to do just that. Away from the pitch he is described as shy and soft-spoken and seems free of any arrogance. Keeping his feet on the ground will be necessary for him as there are rumours of a move to a big European club at the end of this MLS season. The name mentioned most often is Arsenal of England, although Najar’s agent has denied this so far. Whether DC United can keep him is debatable, their season is in free-fall and they are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference with only 5 wins this season with 6 games left and no chance of making the play-offs.
The salary cap system in place in the MLS means that teams have to invest in youth training. With only $2.55m available to spend on players wages and a maximum of 3 Designated Players allowed at each club this makes young players who don’t earn very much all the more important. The better the young player then the more competitive the team will be. Therefore the success of the MLS teams is very much dependent on how well they can develop their own young players. In previous years the US training for young players has lagged behind its European and South American counterparts. However most MLS clubs now have their own academy and taking the best practices from overseas and trying to implement them. A few teams are now starting to see the benefits of investing in their youth academies as graduates are taking their places in the first teams. DC United currently have 3 young players who moved directly from the academy to the first team, Najar, goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Conor Shanosky. The DC academy’s annual budget of $500,000 shows how seriously they take it and that they expect it to deliver results.
It would be a surprise if Najar moved permanently at the end of this season, at the age of 17 a move abroad may not be the right thing for him yet but if he keeps up this level of performance throughout the next season it will not only be the US and Honduras who are fighting over him. He is a different kind of player than Javier Hernandez but his skill and work-rate show that he may be another talented, young Latin American player to move to the Premier League sometime in the near future.