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Najar Shows Promise for United

Springfield resident Andy Najar, 17, is bright spot for D.C. United this season.

When asked what's been the biggest challenge in his short professional soccer career with D.C. United, 17-year-old Springfield resident Andy Najar could only shrug his shoulders.

"I don't know," he said through his limited English. "I just want to work hard for the team and for the fans."

Perhaps so much has changed for the young Honduran forward in the past year that pinpointing one area of difficulty is a bit daunting.

A year ago, Najar was an All-Met striker for Edison High School in The Washington Post's seasonal salute to local athletes. He also led the Eagles with a school-high 22 goals.

Today, he's a rookie forward in America's top professional soccer league, Major League Soccer. Instead of finishing his junior year of high school, Najar dropped out to pursue his career.

Small in stature (he weighs 150 pounds and stands only 5-feet 7-inches), but described as "fast and explosive" by United head coach Curt Onalfo, Najar is trying to make an early impact in the MLS.

In March, Najar signed an entry-level contract with D.C. United, making the jump to the first team roster after spending time as a member of D.C. United's U-18 and U-16 academy teams.

"[The academy was] very good to me and I appreciated the opportunity," he said.

Najar is only the second player signed from D.C. United's academy teams — goaltender Bill Hamid from Annandale is D.C. United's first "homegrown" player.

The team is optimistic about Najar's ability to perform in the MLS, but critics aren't ready to slap the "next one" label on him, a mistake made with another former United youngster, Freddy Adu.

"He's got all the mental qualities to do well at this level," Onalfo said. "Having said that, he's learning and he's going to have moments where he's playing well or he needs guidance."

Guidance is exactly what the team is providing him right now, along with a hefty load of playing time.

On April 29, Najar scored his first professional goal against FC Dallas in a 4-2 win in the U.S. Open Cup.

"That was so exciting for me," he said.

But in May, Najar suffered a setback with an ankle injury. Since then, he has returned to match-fit status and has become a valuable young player for D.C. United.

In a MLS league match with Chivas USA on May 29, Najar scored his first MLS goal during United's 3-2 victory.

"I'm working hard for the team," he said.

So far this season, Najar has logged 83 minutes for D.C. United.

"Because of injuries, he's had opportunities where he may not have had them," Onalfo said. "We're pleased with how he's been incorporated so far."

What might have been one of the biggest steps in Najar's growth occurred on May 26 in a friendly match with Italian soccer giant A.C. Milan. In the game, Najar had the chance to play against 2004 and 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year, Ronaldinho [Ronaldo de Assis Moreira].

In the first half of the match, Najar displayed his inexperience, but also his potential as a pro soccer player.

On defense against Milan's Alexandre Pato, Najar endured some humility as the Brazilian striker "nutmegged" Najar in front of 30,000 fans, a flashy move where a player passes the ball between a defender's legs.

Moments later Najar's inexperience seemed distant as the Honduran footballer raced down the pitch and fired a shot from 33-yards out, just missing the A.C. Milan net by mere feet.

D.C. United went on to stun Milan, one of Serie A's best teams, with a 3-2 victory.

Najar's play has caught the eyes of the Barra Brava, one of D.C. United's enthusiastic flag-waving, song-singing fan groups, and also his elder teammates.

"He's been a great kid from the start," said Baltimore native and D.C. United forward Santino Quaranta. "He's been first-class, and he's been a lot of fun to be around."

But Najar has more to learn about the MLS and professional soccer than set pieces and adjusting to the lifestyle, Quaranta said.

"You just want to teach him how to respect the game," Quaranta said. "You want to make sure he has fun, but make sure he has a respect level for the older guys."

As D.C. United struggles to correct a 2-8 record, Najar's play remains a bright spot during a trying start to the season.

"He's a very exciting young player who gets better everyday," Onalfo said.

Following D.C. United's victory over A.C. Milan, Quaranta and other United stars went to thank their fans for their support after a big win and a turbulent start to the season.

Standing next to them was Najar. Safe to say, he's fitting in at his new job.