For Andy Najar, D.C. United’s 19-year-old burst of flair and finesse on the right flank, representing Honduras in the London Games this summer is about the familiar Olympic tropes. History, patriotism and prestige all apply.
But the tournament also could be his ticket to something more lasting.
Just three years ago, Najar was suiting up for Alexandria’s Edison High School.
With an impressive showing in London, though, the 5-foot-7, 150-pound teenager from an impoverished village in southern Honduras could blaze a trail to a lucrative European contract.
The personal stakes, he acknowledges, are obvious.
“Yes, definitely, it’s something that crosses my mind. I think it crosses every player’s mind,” Najar said via a translator. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase my skills and maybe get to Europe, which would be a dream of mine.”
Such is the nature of the Olympics, which for men’s soccer serve as an under-23 championship so as not to diminish the World Cup, although each team is permitted three overage players.
He also will represent United and Major League Soccer, which is sending only four players to the games after the seemingly strong U.S. team — featuring D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Perry Kitchen — failed to qualify.
“It’s fun when you get to sit back and you’re emotionally invested in someone over there in the Olympics,” said United midfielder-forward Chris Pontius, Najar’s teammate of three years. “Obviously, I wish Perry and Bill could be there as well, but it’s just not the case, and I wish Andy all the best. It’s a good test. He’s on the world scene, and everyone is watching this tournament.”
A United youth academy standout, Najar signed a homegrown contract to the first team in March 2010, less than a week after his 17th birthday. That season, he provided rare moments of magic in a historically dismal campaign for United, recording a team-leading five goals en route to claiming club Most Valuable Player honors and the league Rookie of the Year crown.
As United have bolstered their roster, Najar has slid into a more complementary role yet remained productive, notching five goals and eight assists in the past season and a half. A prolific dribbler with beguiling speed and an uncanny ability to bag highlight-reel goals, Najar quickly has gone from anonymity to being a touted prospect in Honduras‘ national team setup.
“I was never really aware of it,” Najar said of his emergence with Honduras. “It just kind of happened. My first year was definitely my best one, so I know that was a big factor. But I’m just thankful.”
After leaving open the outside possibility he would wait for American citizenship and represent the United States, Najar declared his playing allegiance to Honduras in April 2011. In March, less than 12 months after the announcement, he set up the clinching goal that secured Los Catrachos’ passage to the Olympics as one of two representatives from the federation comprising North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
When it comes to his international profile, Najar knows “it’s been a great year.”
On the field and beyond, Najar has been asked to grow up remarkably fast. He was 13 when he left home behind to move to the U.S. This past October, he and his wife welcomed their first daughter.
It’s maturity that could serve him well in these Olympics. While he remains unusually soft-spoken and humble, still conducting interviews in Spanish despite his English being much better than he lets on, Najar for United hasn’t been one to shy from any situation.
Come Sunday, when Honduras faces the Spaniards, Najar could be matched up with FC Barcelona left back Jordi Alba, the breakout star for Spain’s senior squad that won the European Championship earlier this month.
Not so long ago, Najar could hardly dream of such a chance to shine.
“It’s a very exciting time,” said United coach Ben Olsen, who represented the U.S. at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity for him and Honduras.”