Two years ago, when D.C. United officially signed Chris Durkin to a homegrown contract in June 2016, they had a plan for the youngster. Just 16 at the time, Durkin immediately made his team debut, as the Black-and-Red crashed out of the US Open Cup against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Durkin had a fine performance, but that was the end of his involvement in games with United for the season.
It was part of a plan to help develop Durkin, who would see time with the Richmond Kickers, to go along with his time USA U-17 national team to round out 2016. It was a similar story in 2017, with Durkin playing in the Open Cup win over Christos FC, but spending the rest of his year away, culminating in his strong performance at the U-17 World Cup.
All of that has lead up to Saturday, when D.C. United travel to take on Columbus Crew SC. Injuries and international absences have opened the door for Durkin to make his first-ever league start after appearing in all three of the Black-and-Red’s games this season as a substitute (including his MLS debut in the season opener).
“There’s opportunities for others to step in and show what they are about,” Head Coach Ben Olsen told reporters earlier this week, when asked about the limited number of players that will be available to him this weekend.
And the biggest opportunity just might be for Durkin. Junior Moreno’s apparent hamstring injury leaves him in doubt going into the game against the Columbus Crew. Russell Canouse is still out with a knee injury, and Ulises Segura is away with Costa Rica.
If the 18 year old is handed the start, Durkin will be the youngest starter for the Black-and-Red in MLS play since 2013, when Michael Seaton started and went 90 minutes in a 4-1 loss to Toronto FC, at the age of 17 years and 150 days.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” Durkin told reporters earlier this week after practice. “Being over in the U-17 World Cup, fighting with those guys, and fighting my way, [making] a good impression in preseason. I’ve worked hard over the past year, and the work is starting to pay off. But I have to keep going on, keep doing what I have been doing.”
One of the bigger aspects to Durkin’s growth since he signed with United has been his time with the Kickers in USL. The U-17 World Cup gave him a stage to shine, but it’s easier to stand out against players your own age. With Richmond, Durkin was playing against seasoned veterans and guys a bit older who were also just starting their professional careers.
United has leaned on Richmond throughout the recent years to help the Black-and-Red develop players when playing time is limited in the nation’s capital. It hasn’t been a perfect set-up, and the results haven’t always been there. But in the case of Durkin, it’s clear that the professional environment has been just what Durkin needed to continue his growth as a player.
“Richmond has been great. [Head Coach] Leigh [Cowlishaw] has done an amazing job,” said Olsen. “It’s not an easy task to deal with us sending players down on a Thursday or Friday, and then pulling them back because we have an injury. It’s a tough job to juggle a team and players coming down.”
That relationship will come to an end next year, when United finally roll out their own USL side, out in Loudoun County. D.C. will have their own team, their own environment to help nurture young players, whether they be draft picks or homegrown players such as Durkin.
Having that control over player development is an aspect of the new team that Olsen is looking forward to.
“Next year, it will be different, and we will be looking forward to that,” said Olsen, of the USL team that will start play in March 2019. “In being in our environment, and controlling everything, it will help us in moving certain players along quicker.”
Three weeks ago, Durkin finally made his MLS debut, coming on as a substitute against Orlando City. United had the lead, but Durkin came into the fray as the Lions controlled the play, despite being down a man. It wasn’t the ideal result for Durkin’s first MLS appearance, as he had little involvement in terms of possession.
When he came on against Atlanta United two weeks ago, United trailed 3-0, and the game was essentially over. But there was some signs of improvement from Durkin, as the team grabbed a goal back late through Darren Mattocks.
Against Houston, Durkin got his longest appearance, coming on for the final 20 minutes, plus 8 minutes of stoppage time. He almost had an assist for Yamil Asad, from a pinpoint 60 yard pass from his own half into Asad’s stride. It wasn’t to be, but United equalized later on. After the game, Olsen stated that it was Durkin’s best performance to date, something that Durkin agreed with this week.
“The most important part is that I’ve become more comfortable,” said the 18-year-old. “I’ve started to find my feet a little more each game. I feel confident, and each [game] has been a good learning experience. I think I can only get better.”
Having cleared so many milestones in recent months, a first MLS start for Durkin appears to be around the corner. Whether it is this weekend against Columbus, or in the near future, it will just be another step for Durkin’s bright future.
“Whenever that first start comes, I’ll be focused in that moment of time,” said Durkin, when asked what his feelings would be before his potential first league start. “But after the match, there will be a lot of reflection, a lot of thank yous, to everyone who supported me along the way. I have a big fan base behind me, and it’s been awesome to hear everything from them.”