USMNT Rising Star: DC United prospect Chris Durkin reaping benefits of patience

It's always tempting for any player in the Americas, north or south, to make the move to Europe at the first opportunity. But Chris Durkin is one of a growing number showing that staying put for an extra few years has its benefits.

The European interest can be seen as a sign that a player has 'made it', but to think this is the case is misguided, and Durkin knew this when the inevitable approaches from Europe came.

“If I went to Europe, I wouldn’t have been able to play right away,” he told the Washington City Paper last year.

“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.”

The 18-year-old is not the only one excited about his future, and despite having not yet won his first cap for the United States Men's National Team, it's only a matter of time for the highly rated defensive midfielder.

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Who is Chris Durkin?

Born in Hampton near Newport News, Virginia, Durkin began his career in soccer with Richmond Kickers not far from his hometown of Glen Allen – a suburb of Richmond.

He moved back and forth between the Kickers and DC United, playing for the youth teams of both due to the fact the Kickers are, or were, the USL Pro affiliate for the Washington DC-based Major League Soccer club.

Having played at the club since the age of eight, he signed a professional deal with Richmond Kickers in 2015.

A year later, still aged just 16, he signed professionally for DC United, becoming the youngest homegrown signing in the history of the franchise at 16 years and 127 days old.

He made his debut for United in a US Open Cup game against Fort Lauderdale Strikers that year, before returning to the Kickers on loan to gain more first team experience in USL Pro during 2016 and 2017.

The 2018 campaign marked Durkin's breakthrough with DC United, coming off the bench against Orlando City on March 3 for his debut before going on to become a regular part of their squad in the deep lying midfield position.

The Washington Post’s Emily Giambalvo summed up his debut, writing: "Durkin sprinted over to the bench, and his mind buzzed with emotion. Before he entered, he noticed a camera and saw himself on the video board. He wondered about his family back home in Richmond. 

“The rest is a blur. Durkin stepped onto the field and all was familiar and soccer became his world.”

Key stats

Durkin went on to make 23 appearances for DC United in his first MLS season, which gives us a good amount of game time at the top level to go off as we dig into the data.

Sixteen of those 23 appearances were starts, which shows the trust head coach Ben Olsen had in him.

Despite having occasionally played at centre-back for his youth sides, all of his appearances for DC last season were as a defensive midfielder.

A couple of stats catch the eye straight away. His average of 2.63 clearances per 90 minutes put him fifth among MLS midfielders and speak of an innate ability to read the game. 

Durkin emerged from the season with a respectful 2.15 interceptions per 90, putting him 15th in the league among players in his position.

He was only dispossessed around once per game on average, which suggests he is good at resisting the press. That said, it's worth looking at how often MLS teams actually press as high as the opposition defensive midfielder.

The stats show there is plenty of room for improvement, though, with pass accuracy coming in at 84 per cent and his long ball accuracy at 52 per cent. He tries 6.4 long passes per 90 minutes. A deep-lying midfielder should perhaps be performing better in these areas, but we'll explain why these figures are what they are below.

Finally, Durkin won 60 per cent of his aerial duels, averaging 1.61 aerial balls won per 90, and also won 70 per cent of his tackles at 2.39 per 90.

Scouting report

Watching Durkin play, the reasons he has been moved into midfield from centre-back become more evident.

The data from his club and from the scouting software has him listed at 184cm (6ft). He’s primarily right-footed but can use both feet to pass and shoot. 

At youth level has shown he has a strong enough shot to let fly from distance, should he ever find himself in those positions.

He has scored from outside the area with his left and right foot, relying on placement more than power, but these are certainly not weak shots.

He was also given the responsibility at set pieces on a number of occasions and has scored from at least one free kick!.

Durkin's pass accuracy – referred to in the stats section – may be low because he likes to attempt long passes from the back when he thinks he can find a forward out wide, or put the striker in behind the defence – either over the top or along the ground through traffic.

This shows he is willing to use a range of passing as a deep-lying playmaker, and again shows why he has stepped up from centre-back. He has a good eye for a pass, can spot the runs of a striker and play the ball into space ahead of them.

The press resistance hinted at earlier is evident in his game, but it would be good to see him against high-pressing teams at the top level. He has the ability to take a man on, despite being a defensive player.

Much of his work so far in MLS has been on the defensive side of the game, battling in duels in the air and on the ground. He’s proactive in defence as, rather than waiting for opponents to come to him, he will step out to challenge them.

His positioning and reading of the game is sound and he boasts a high level of game intelligence which should serve him well.

USMNT International

As with many of the players covered in this series, Durkin was part of US Soccer’s residency program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, taking his place in January 2016.

Durkin became an integral and versatile part of the USA’s youth soccer sides, playing in defence or midfield.

He occasionally captained the side and went on to play in all five games for the under-17s at the 2017 Under-17 World Cup – two in midfield and three at centre-back. Earlier that year he had taken part in the CONCACAF Under-17 Championship where he was named in the Team of the Tournament as the USA reached the final.

At the beginning of 2018 he was called up for the first ever US Soccer Men’s YNT Summit Camp in Florida, and was one of five players playing for the under-20s despite still being eligible for the year below— the others being Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, Jaylin Lindsay and James Sands.

A senior call up is expected sooner rather than later.

Potential

Though there may be more high-profile young defensive midfielders in the USMNT ranks at the moment, Durkin could well become the one to nail the position down long term.

A lot depends on the upcoming season at DC United. The hope is he becomes a first-choice for coach Olsen, aided by the fact DC regularly play with two deep-lying midfielders.

There's some suggestion he is as good on the ball as is in the tackle so should, therefore, be a defensive midfielder. But that ignores the fact passing and distribution is as important a part of a centre-back’s game as it’s ever been.

However, there are a number of promising young central defenders coming through the ranks in the USMNT pool, so Durkin would do well to keep progressing as he has been in midfield.

In the future, it might be good to see Olsen test the soon to be 19-year-old at the back in MLS as he gains more experience.

But he has shown more than enough in midfield to suggest this will be his natural position for the moment and, in the future, he could be a very tidy deep-lying playmaker who recycles possession and wins the ball back for his side.

Benfica, AC Milan, and a number of other teams in Europe have shown tentative interest in Durkin in the past, and by the end of 2019 it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s higher up on the scouting shortlists of clubs in Europe.

On top of this he should make his senior national team debut this year, or at the very least be involved in the squad.

The future is bright for this young American, and it appears he is making the right decisions on and off the pitch.

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