Andy Najar's Olympic adventure has been a rousing success thus far, but the D.C. United winger will face his biggest test Saturday.
Najar has played a major role in getting Honduras' Olympic soccer team out of its group and into the quarterfinals, helping set up the all-MLS goal that led to Honduras' shocking win over Spain and starting all three matches during the group stage. Next up for Honduras is a quarterfinal date with gold medal-favorite Brazil, though, and that means Najar will be matched up against Real Madrid left back Marcelo.
Najar's D.C. United teammates are well aware of what the opportunity means for the 19-year-old winger, who has reportedly attracted the interest of English clubs Tottenham, Arsenal, West Brom, Wigan Athletic and Norwich City.
"He's flying. He's ready to take the opportunity. It's a great opportunity for him and he knows that," said Marcelo Saragosa, Najar's road-trip roommate who has been in contact with him through text message. "It's a good opportunity to play and maybe sign with a big club in England, so he's very happy there."
D.C. veteran player-coach Josh Wolff has a good idea of what Najar is going through. As an Olympian in 2000, Wolff scored twice and helped lead the United States to a fourth-place finish.
"The Olympics for me was one of the greatest experiences, better than the World Cups," Wolff said. "As your team does well there's a real energy and excitement that comes with it, so I think for him it's a great experience, and we hope he continues to get through. For Andy it's about being on that big stage and trying to keep the emotions in check and still play his game. It's a tough competition playing against great players from all over the world. Hopefully as the tournament continues on he can see minutes and plays well.
"They've gotten good results. At that point you really start to get a little bit of belief and momentum on your side. If you can get things rolling in the right direction, you can find yourself in the medal stages."
As for Saragosa, a native of Brazil but close confidant to Najar, he is a bit conflicted ahead of the Brazil-Honduras matchup, in which the winner will advance to a semifinal against either Team Great Britain or South Korea and be within a game of the gold medal round.
"My heart is (with) Brazil," Saragosa said. "But I'll cheer for Andy."
CLUB READY TO TURN PAGE TO AUGUST
It has been two weeks since D.C. last played, with that match being a 1-0 loss at Crew Stadium to Saturday's opponent — the Columbus Crew. This matchup will take place at RFK Stadium, but it's one that suddenly has major playoff implications, with D.C. sliding in the Eastern Conference standings and Columbus on the rise. D.C. sits in fourth place, five points clear of the sixth-place Crew, but Columbus has a game in hand.
The loss to the Crew capped an odd July for D.C., which only had two games that were preceeded and followed by two-week breaks from league matches, something that stunted the team's forward momentum. The club fell on the road to Houston and Columbus before tying Paris Saint-Germain in a friendly last weekend.
"Looking forward to the month of July, we knew it was going to be strange, because we didn't have the games, so we were going to lose rhythm and in that you might lose a little bit of your game sharpness and fitness," Wolff said. "The last two (games) haven't been what we would've liked. There's a real urgency and emphasis on us coming home now and starting off the month of August in the right way.
"We have a lot of games against all of our conference teams, and we've got to stay with that top group in our division and certainly continue to separate from the likes of Columbus."
D.C. STANDS PAT AT TRANSFER DEADLINE
D.C. United watched as almost all of their chief competitors in the Eastern Conference made major splashes during the summer transfer window. New York added Tim Cahill, Sebastien Le Toux and Babajide Ogunbiyi. Houston added Oscar Boniek Garcia and is bringing back Ricardo Clark. Chicago acquired Designated Players Alvaro Fernandez and Sherjill MacDonald. Columbus signed DP Federico Higuain.
Conversely, D.C. only made a minor move prior to the close of the window, adding young Brazilian central midfielder Raphael Augusto to provide depth. That's not to say the club did not explore its options, but the sense is that D.C. is content with the way the roster is currently constructed.
"All teams coming through the summer, you've got to look to enhance the group somehow," Wolff said. "Some of that might be with DPs, some of that might be with other role players. I continue to believe that we look and keep our ears out there for whatever can come our way and are constantly looking, but you don't want to make a deal just to make a deal. You want to make a deal that's going to help your team turn the corner."