On Sunday night, I watched an MLS game, Galaxy at DC United. Part of it was a need for some Proper football to help ease my hangover from the World Cup. Part was a burgeoning desire to support the league more fully and to learn about (and see) some of the young players I’d been reading about. Specifically, for this game, 17-year-old United midfielder Andy Najar.
Najar came to the U.S. three years ago from Honduras and was spotted by a United official who brought the youngster into the club’s Academy. He’s been a regular this year and generated a lot of chatter for his fearless play and undeniable skill.
Najar impressed v. Landon Donovan and Co. as well. He scored United’s only goal in the 2-1 loss, beating USMNT striker Edson Buddle to power home a header off a free kick (Najar is generously listed at 5’7″). He showed tremendous work-rate up and down the wing and even displayed a willingness to defend, an awareness lacking in many young players.
Naturally, the big question surrounding the kid is, “Which national team will he play for?” I found myself furiously looking for clues online. I didn’t find the answer. What I did find is everyone else is wondering the same thing.
As mentioned, Najar hasn’t tipped his hand one way or the other. He remains a Honduran citizen, but has a green card in the U.S. (he’d need to secure citizenship on these shores before he’d be eligible for the Nats). His “no comment” is especially impressive considering this article, where a Honduran journo presses the issue no less than five times (my favorite being where he asks who Najar’s favorite Honduran player is and follows that up with, “Well…what if HE asked you to play for the Catrachos?”)
Najar’s case points to a trend among the powers that be at the United States Soccer Federation. With the high-profile “defections” of Guiseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic, USSF officials are going to great pains to track down and recruit young players with dual nationalities. Qualifying for next year’s U-20 World Cup gets underway shortly and the U.S. player pool has expanded world-wide.
There are a few forces at work here. One, U-20 Coach Thomas Rongen was widely blamed for Subotic’s choice to represent Serbia after the coach snubbed the defender, so it’s in his best interest–that of continued employment–to beat the bushes with new-found thoroughness. There’s the U.S. youth soccer club system, which is generally for affluent suburbans who can afford the time and travel. The system fails to identify and recruit urban talent–often the children of recent immigrants–who feel more allegiance to their parents’ homelands and have contacts with family and leagues in foreign countries where they are more likely to be given tryouts. Former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna has recently been tapped as Youth Technical Director to help expand the opportunities for these players. There has been, until recently, a reverse bias against U.S. soccer teams, long though to be short on invention and world-class talent, not to mention their low-profile in the media.
The last has surely changed after the World Cup, which should serve as a powerful marketing tool for the U.S. as a soccer nation that has arrived. On the field and in the papers and in the pubs.
Andy Najar’s decision will draw plenty of attention and his will not be the only saga played out on message boards (but hopefully not during one-hour specials on ESPN) as future National Teams take shape. One thing is for certain, for American soccer, we’re gonna need a bigger melting pot.