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D.C. United 2018 season review: Chris Durkin

2018 saw United’s youngest player take a big step forward

Coming into 2018, Chris Durkin had to be feeling a bit of a disconnect. A darling of the #PlayYourKids segment of American soccer, Durkin had impressed repeatedly for U.S. youth national teams, and would start his third pro season shortly after turning 18. For D.C. United, however, his only appearances had come in Open Cup matches against lower-division opponents, and his YNT commitments had left him with little time to break through in the District.

United’s acquisitions were only going to make that task tougher. Russell Canouse did well immediately upon joining the team in the 2017 summer window, and in the winter United added Venezuela national team regular Junior Moreno to the list of competitors for the defensive midfield job. Even thoughts of Canouse or Moreno playing more of a #8 role were complicated when Ulises Segura was signed with that position in mind at first. Fellow homegrown Ian Harkes added to the general central midfield logjam.

A preseason knee injury at least gave Durkin a quick path to some preseason minutes, but Moreno was logging nearly all of the minutes when the presumptive starting team was on the field. Still, it counted as progress that Durkin was listed in the gameday 18 as the Black-and-Red kicked their season off against Orlando City, and he made his MLS debut off the bench in a game where United was clinging to a 1-0 road lead.

The result on the day was frustrating, but it was an early sign that Ben Olsen had seen enough to begin trusting his young prodigy with more than charity minutes. Durkin would go on to appear in each of United’s first 10 games, and 18 of the first 19, starting 11 times, before Canouse’s return to fitness, Moreno’s growing comfort in MLS, and United’s impressive late-season run restricted his minutes. In D.C.’s final 15 games, Durkin went the full 90 four times and added a one-minute cameo against Chicago.

Still, even with “restricted” minutes, we’re talking about an 18 year old playing arguably the most mentally demanding position in the sport, during a stretch of time where United frequently found themselves under intense pressure to win games. The evidence is clear that Durkin is a player Olsen is very comfortable putting into any game, against any opponent. He may not be first choice, but he’s in the rotation for sure, and Moreno probably can’t spend any time resting on his laurels either.

United went 6W-4D-7L in the games Durkin played 45 or more minutes, conceding 28 goals while scoring 27. That’s not great, but it seems unreasonable to place much blame on the Glen Allen, VA native. Most of those games came before Wayne Rooney arrived, before Audi Field opened, and before Canouse’s return from injury. He also spent 14 those 17 games playing in the 4141 formation that largely had structural problems that saw United simply concede too often to get results with any regularity.

Durkin may not be completely blameless for some of those struggles — his defending on the turn still needs work, and more seasoned pros seemed to know how to leverage better body position into holding off challenges from him — but clearly the issue was far more about a lack of support than Durkin not being good enough. Playing in the 4231, he went the full 90 in back-to-back 1-0 wins while Moreno was away on international duty, including a dramatic victory over an FC Dallas team that seemed tailor-made to exploit the areas of his game that still need work.

Statistically, Durkin was very competitive with United’s other defensive midfielders. On the entire roster this year, only Canouse had more interceptions per 90 than Durkin, whose rate (1.6) was closer to Canouse’s (1.9) than to Moreno’s (1.2). He committed fewer fouls than Moreno (albeit by a very narrow 0.1 per 90 margin). His 84.2% passing accuracy on the season is short of the high totals from Canouse (89%) and Moreno (87%), but remember that Durkin played mostly road games on the year, and mostly without nearby support due to the formation.

There’s also the fact that Durkin can do something that no one on the roster (well, save for Rooney, but you probably want to see him elsewhere on the field) can do:

Here’s what I wrote about this play at the time:

Durkin is looking for this pass before Stieber even gets the ball. It wasn’t in frame, so I didn’t include it in the gif, but when Luciano Acosta passes to Stieber, Durkin is already moving into the space Acosta’s movement opens up. He’s already gesturing for the ball, and he already knows his first look is going to be for this 35 yard pass. He might not know exactly who his runner is going to be (Rooney is also an option), but he knows a) that TFC hasn’t recovered from the turnover that sparked this move, b) that they’re scrambling in midfield because of how many runners D.C. has, and c) that this is no time for a sideways pass.

In other words, this is a great summary of why Durkin is such a good prospect. It’s what he sees ahead of time, over a larger swath of the field, than the large majority of other American defensive midfielders.

If Durkin’s passing range and vision were the same as Moreno’s, he’d be a wonderful prospect to become a longtime MLS starter. The reason he is brought up as a future USMNT prospect is that he can play passes like this on a regular basis...and that he can see passes like this at 18. His ability to see openings like this from long range, and then place the ball where it needs to be, is what differentiates him from his competitors in a crowded pool of defensive midfielders in this country.

United fans and youth national team nerds are not the only folks who see what Durkin can become. named him to their 22 Under 22 list, where he came in at #14. He’s still reportedly the subject of interest from European clubs, and we can expect those rumors to get louder if he plays up to his ability in next year’s Under-20 World Cup (May 23-June 15, before you ask).

Obviously I’m pretty strongly pro-Durkin, but now it’s time for your say. Do you want to see Durkin back next year?


Do you want Chris Durkin back for the 2019 season?

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