When Andy Najar, one of the breakout stars of D.C. United's season, tore his ACL while playing in Belgium for powerhouse Anderlecht in 2016, it was the start of a bleak stretch.
Only more injuries followed. He'd pull his hamstring, then his thighs, then repeat in a dark cycle for Najar. In the summer of 2019, Najar ruptured his cruciate ligament and faced another year of rehabilitation. A return to Major League Soccer in 2020 after a six-year stint across the pond was meant to rejuvenate his career, but LAFC declined his second-year option after just eight appearances.
That's when his connection with D.C. United's newly hired assistant coach Nico Frutos, from their days together with Anderlecht, opened the door for him to make the same move he did as a 13-year-old with his family immigrating from Honduras -- head to Washington, D.C.
"Truthfully, in soccer, things can happen that one can't explain," Najar told D.C. United reporter and producer Claudia Pagan in his native Spanish. "Nico was the assistant coach, head coach for some games at Anderlecht, so we knew each other from Belgium -- same with (head coach) Hernan (Losada)."
Back in 2010, Najar had signed D.C. United's second ever Generation Adidas contract, a program designed to get young talent developed at an elite level. After 10 goals and 11 assists in 82 games as a winger in his first three pro seasons, Najar not only quickly drew attention from overseas but also inspired guys like former Terp and current D.C. United center back Donovan Pines to reach the MLS level.
It's there where he got to work with Frutos and played against Losada, who came over from Belgian club Beerschot to take over for Ben Olsen in January. Hampered and down from constant injuries, Najar got an important call from Frutos to help provide a spark for his career.
"Since being in Belgium, (Frutos) always wanted to work with me, he saw that I had several injuries and said he could help solve these issues," Najar said. "He called me and said, 'If I go there, Hernan and I want you to be part of the team. We're going to help you recover and get back to your level.' That really motivated me to keep fighting."
Thanks to Frutos, Najar is back at his best level and has been nothing short of a revelation as the right third of Losada's back three, as well as in the midfield. When he's not showing off his highlight-reel dribbling skills, Najar is doing all the dirty work defensively.
Najar is going to be vitally important to Losada's plans moving forward. With three assists and an 80% passing rate to his name through 15 appearances, Najar has developed a terrific connection with right wing back Julian Gressel to create a menacing attack down the right flank. With Paul Arriola returning from captaining the U.S. men's national team's Gold Cup triumph, that right side could be the driving force behind D.C. United's playoff pursuit the second half of the MLS season.
For Najar, though, playing consistent matches closer to family for the club he grew up near, this season has been about as fun as it is for Black and Red fans to watch him grace the field.
"It was incredible to return home because to me this has always been home, and I think it always will be."