You remember Freddy Adu, right?
He was drafted first overall by D.C. United in 2003. The youngest player ever to appear in an MLS match. The youngest player ever to score a goal in an MLS match. Everybody loved him back then.
Well maybe everybody except his coach.
Adu struggled to earn his way into United's starting lineup for his entire three seasons in D.C. His style of play just never really seemed to fit in. Adu was a creative force on the ball, but his lack of contributions away from the ball often exposed him as a defensive liability. The team already had one MVP-caliber attacking midfielder in Christian Gomez, so it was hard to make room for another.
But that didn’t stop the fans from hoping. All wanted the chance to see the future savior of American soccer. They wanted to see Adu juggle the ball for 50 yards up the field, back-heel it into the net, then turn around and cure cancer.
Adu started most matches on the bench, and his popularity was analogous to that of the backup quarterback on any losing football team. Chants for "Freddy" were no different from chants for "A.J." from Eagles fans every time Donovan McNabb took a sack.
Now United has a new teenage sensation, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him. D.C. United’s most passionate supporters hadn’t even heard of him six months ago either. His name is Andy Najar.
The respective journeys that Adu and Najar took to reach the club could not have been more different. Adu was hyped since the age of 12. Najar didn’t even play an organized soccer match until his first year of high school. And yes, he scored a hat trick in his first match.
Najar joined D.C. United’s youth academy shortly thereafter while still starring for Edison High School in Alexandria. When his name started showing up in match reports during United's training camp in Bradenton, Fla., this March, we just assumed the organization was giving their best Academy product a chance to see what professional soccer was like. And when United signed him to a Homegrown player contract, we just assumed that the club was exercising its right to sign Academy players so that he could earn a salary while training full time. Maybe he'd be ready for the league in a couple years. But when Andy Najar fought his way into the regular starting lineup, all those assumptions were laid to rest.
Najar’s teammates say he’s the real deal, and I tend to agree.
Andy Najar is everything Adu wasn’t. He’s flexible, having lined up at right fullback, defensive midfield, attacking midfield and striker in various different matches for United. He works just as hard when the ball is at his feet as when it’s being protected by an opponent. He fights every moment he’s on the field, reminding fans more of United’s previous No. 14 Ben Olsen than their previous teenage phenom.
Oh yeah, and Najar actually looks like he’s 17. There have never been any questions about the date on his birth certificate.
The biggest difference though is in attitude. Adu found himself in coach Peter Nowak’s doghouse because he was far too brazen and presumptuous to fit in with a team that already has a case full of trophies and teammates who play with the word "tradition" literally on their backs. Najar, on the other hand, is often described as shy and soft-spoken. Ego is never going to be a problem with this kid.
Andy Najar scored his first MLS goal May 29 against Chivas USA, but it took another four days and 107 minutes for people to really take notice. In the second overtime period of a U.S. Open Cup qualifying match against Real Salt Lake, Najar entered the match and made an impact just two minutes later. He received the ball on the right wing, dribbled between two defenders, spun, danced and struck a low shot past the goalkeeper into the net and into United history. RFK Stadium erupted, with the overwhelming feeling that all inside had just witnessed something very special.
Alex Ovechkin has turned the Capitals into a yearly championship contender. Stephen Strasburg has suddenly sparked a huge amount of interest in the Nationals among people who didn’t even know they were baseball fans. John Wall is sure to resurrect the Wizards from obscurity when drafted later this month. Can Andy Najar do the same for D.C. United?