Credit: COURTESY D.C. UNITED

Chris Durkin could have left D.C United before he ever really got started.

The highly regarded 18-year-old was subject to interest from Portuguese club Benfica prior to the 2018 season, before he had had even played a single Major League Soccer match with United.

It would have been hard to blame Durkin for moving on. Benfica is one of Portugal’s biggest clubs and has earned a reputation as a place where talent can develop, thrive, and eventually be sold on to even bigger clubs within Europe. Teams in Germany and Italy also reportedly had interest.

But the midfielder, who signed his first pro deal with D.C. United in 2016 as a 16-year-old, decided to stick around.

“At the beginning of my career I wanted to have a good support system around me and really get a jump start on things,” Durkin tells City Paper of his decision to reject a move across the pond. “I thought this atmosphere around me was most helpful in me becoming the best that I could.”

This season has had its highs and lows for Durkin, but the Hampton, Virginia native has gained invaluable experience while clocking the kind of playing time few teenagers in MLS get to enjoy.

Durkin began the season on the bench, before quickly entrenching himself in manager Ben Olsen’s starting lineup. Playing as a defensive midfielder, Durkin’s poise on the ball and passing range earned him a start in 12 of the team’s 14 games between late March and the end of July.

He’s since found himself on the bench more often after Russell Canouse’s return from injury in late July, starting only two of United’s last 11 games.

Bouncing in and out of the lineup is a typical part of any young player’s development, and Durkin is trying to take his demotion in stride.

“This development process is a roller coaster,” Durkin says. “There’s a bunch of ups and downs and trying to stay mentally even-keeled is important. It’s difficult for sure, but I know that my teammates around me and my coaches will help support me through it.”

Canouse, who has become a lynchpin in United’s late-season turnaround, says that Durkin has responded well to his diminished playing time.

“He’s done very well with it. Obviously it’s tough,” Canouse tells City Paper. “I’ve had situations like that in the past where I’ve been playing and a guy comes in and starts over me, but he’s continued to work hard and has obviously gotten a couple chances since and has done well.”

It’s worth considering how unique Durkin’s presence on the field this season has been in the first place.

Only five teenagers in MLS have played more than 1,000 minutes in 2018, and Durkin is the second youngest player in that group. For D.C. United, Durkin is the first teenager to feature regularly since Perry Kitchen and Andy Najar between 2010 and 2012.

In a league where young players often struggle to see the field, Durkin has broken through after spending most of 2017 with the Richmond Kickers, United’s lower-league affiliate.

“This year for Chris Durkin is going according to plan,” Olsen said in a press conference earlier this month. “It’s going according to his development plan. He’s getting first-team minutes, coming off the bench at times. …This is a big step up from last year where he didn’t find himself in any games and out of the [game-day roster] for most of the year. This is a good development year for him.”

Durkin, who captained the United States 17-and-under national team at the World Cup last summer, has adjusted well to the speed of the pro game, utilizing his technical ability and vision to become an effective passer from his deep-lying midfield position. He admits there are still physical aspects of his game he needs to improve.

“It’s a man’s game and I’ve got to get stronger, not necessarily in the gym but just understanding how to tackle better and my positional awareness,” Durkin says. “We’re going over these things in film and it’s been helpful and I’ve learned so much this season. Whether it’s a positive game or a negative game, there’s always something to take away from it.”

Durkin can take plenty away from his first MLS season, a campaign in which he’s gone from enticing prospect to first-team contributor at an age when most players are still developing in the youth ranks.

A move abroad may be coming eventually for one of the country’s best teenage talents, but for now Durkin is happy with his decision to stay put.

“If I went to Europe, I wouldn’t have been able to play right away,” Durkin says. “Being able to play right now is what was important and getting matches. How many minutes I’ve gotten is perfect for what I needed. I see more coming ahead and I’m really excited.”