Earlier this year, following the United States' run to the Under-17 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals in India, Scouted Football's Justin Sousa spoke to 17-year-old, Chris Durkin. Here is our extensive interview with Chris, in which we discussed his Indian experiences, the US youth football development system, and his plans for 2018.
Scouted Football's Justin Sousa: What was it like for you to represent the USA at this year’s Under-17 World Cup?
Chris Durkin: It’s always been a childhood dream of mine to represent my country at a World Cup. I think almost 46,000 people attended our first match, and the atmosphere in India made the moment even more special. It was crazy to see how many people came out to watch the games, but the people there worked really hard to market the event - so props to them for the great turn out.
Scouted: How did you cope with the pressure and atmosphere of each match?
Chris: I found myself reflecting on the hard work I put in this year with Richmond [Kickers] and D.C. United, back in the U.S. before each match. It gives me the peace of mind knowing that when I step onto that field, everything I have done over these past few years has gotten me to this point. I can look across the pitch and know that I have worked harder than anyone else out there.
Scouted: Richmond Kickers played a big part in your development over this past year as you went on to make 11 appearances for the USL side. What were you able to take from your USL experience into your games at the World Cup?
Chris: I think Richmond put out a great platform for me to develop this year. As you said, 11 games worth of professional minutes is huge for any young player when they are developing. It was great for my confidence as well, knowing that I could handle bigger and more experienced players than myself. At the World Cup, I think my speed of play was faster than most, and my defensive strength was the highlight of my performances throughout the tournament.
Scouted: Experience is a key component to every young player’s development. What are some key elements you feel the team, and yourself, need to build upon going into 2018?
Chris: Obviously the first thing is to recognise that there is always room for improvement for myself, individually, and for the squad as a whole. We just have to keep challenging ourselves in competitive environments to grow, to succeed, and to develop. The loss to Colombia showed us that complacency does not bode well in any competition, regardless of how well you have been performing. That match definitely gave us a wake up call heading into the knockout round—and it showed with a win. The England match was much harder to take at first, mostly because for the past two years, we had all been working extremely hard to get here and for our final minutes as a team to end in that fashion, that was really heart breaking. However, it opened our eyes to the paths each of us is on, [with the aim] to reaching our goals as professionals.
Scouted: Josh Sargent wore the captain’s armband throughout the tournament, but you two have shared the responsibility in the lead-up to this tournament. How would you say you differ in terms of leadership styles, on and off the field?
Chris: Josh is definitely more of a ‘lead-by-example’ type of player. He works his butt off in practice, and on the field. He never gives up on a challenge. Personally, playing in a position further back [on the pitch], I’m able to see the field more and orchestrate the team in the direction of Josh’s movement. If the other guys see Josh closing down a defender, they know to press with him in order for us to win the ball. I’m there to motivate the guys to keep consistent pressure and work as hard as Josh is up top. Between the two of us, I’m definitely more of a vocal captain.
Scouted: Shifting gears a bit, I just wanted to take a moment to talk about your opinion on the USL as a league for developing young players. How do you feel about the league’s willingness to provide academy players, such as yourself, with professional minutes?
Chris: I think USL has done a fantastic job bringing young players into competitive environments and transitioning them into the MLS. The hope is that this continues as the game grows in the United States, and teams don’t start to use the league as a warehouse for their academy players.
The thing that made Richmond such a great learning experience was that I was surrounded by seasoned professionals. It keeps the competitiveness high within the club and the league as whole. I probably wouldn’t have gained as much knowledge if the team was full of players my age.
FC Dallas is a great example of a team that loves to bring young players into the thick of things with the first team, and they are a club others in the United States should look to follow in terms of youth development. If the clubs can continue to keep a good mixture of academy players and veterans of the game, I think USL will be a great platform for young players, for years to come.
Scouted: There has been a lot of hype recently over USL being one of the best second-tier leagues in world football when it comes to quality, competitiveness, and, obviously, youth development. Would you agree that it is at that type of level already, or are they the objectives that the league should aspire to achieve in the future?
Chris: I think the league is definitely up there in terms of second divisions. Most of these teams are located outside of MLS cities, and teams like FC Cincinnati and Richmond Kickers constantly break attendance records every year. The quality of the league is definitely underestimated, but with the way MLS is growing and more cities are starting to join USL, I think it will gain its recognition in no time. Overall, the league has done a great job to grow the love and passion for soccer here in the United States, and I think it will continue to grow in years to come.
Scouted: Going into 2018, do you see yourself returning to Richmond or fighting for a first team spot with D.C. United?
Chris: The immediate goal is to return to training with D.C. [United] and secure a spot in the team for next season. I think the new stadium has definitely built a lot of hype around the franchise and I am excited to work with all the energy coming out of D.C. this year. The opportunity to play consistently at Audi Field, for my boyhood club, is definitely a huge motivator going into the new year. This upcoming pre-season will be a huge factor as to where I end up in 2018, but I plan to go in[to it] with the intention of being on United’s team sheet throughout the season.
Scouted: Which aspects of your game would you say need the most improvement in order for you to reach that next level in your playing ability?
Chris: Every player’s overall game can always be improved, regardless of whether you are just breaking into the first team or an experienced professional. In my position, I can always look to get better on the ball and improve my tactical awareness. Positioning has been an area I have tried to improve on a lot this year. As a six, it’s not always beneficial to run around the field and chase the ball down. Most of the time, it’s asking myself where I should be if the ball is here or there. I also hope to improve my leadership skills, utilising the experiences to come in 2018, and soaking up the knowledge from the mentors I’ll have at D.C. United.
Scouted: Who would you say is the player you try to replicate most in your style of play?
Chris: As an avid Manchester United fan, I’ve always idolised the way David Beckham played. We clearly have different positions, but the way he was able to pinpoint his passes and crosses made me want to perform with the same accuracy and perfection as him. I’m also a huge fan of the way Nemanja Matić controls the midfield with his size and reading of the game’s momentum. I think I see myself as that Nemanja Matić-esque break-up player, where I protect my back line first before instigating an attack.
Scouted: How important have the fans been to your development as a player? What differences do you see in the way homegrown players are treated in the U.S. compared to Europe?
Chris: Personally, I’ve received a ton of support from friends and family, as well as the home fans in D.C. and in Richmond. Everyone loves to check in on how I’m doing, not only as a player, but also as a young adult. I would agree that homegrown players in MLS receive a tremendous amount of support and love from their fans. Knowing that I have a whole fan base behind me every time I step onto the field is huge for my confidence.
I think young players here have an advantage when it comes to the support they have from home fans. Developing young players is an extensive process, and the patience our fans have with young players is encouraging for us. I’ve learned over the past few years that you can’t just throw yourself or be thrown into situations without having already gone through the previous levels. You need to do well at one level in order to progress to the next level, and you have to be comfortable with one skill in order to pull off another. There’s no skipping steps when it comes to player development.
Scouted: With the senior U.S. national team failing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup next year, does that place more pressure on the U-20 and U-17 groups, in terms of hastening player development?
Chris: Both of those teams reached the quarter-finals of their respective World Cups, which is a massive achievement for the U.S. setup. I think England is the only other country to do that this year at the U-20 and U-17 World Cup. We’ve seen what the players in both age groups are capable of and I think both sides have proven they have immense talent within them. Obviously the senior national team not qualifying for next year’s World Cup is a huge bummer, but this can serve as an important lesson for the coaching staff, and everyone involved with the USMNT. I don’t feel any more pressure than I have before.
This could be a great turnaround for the national team, and the USMNT side that fights for a World Cup spot will have a much larger pool of talent to pick from when qualifiers come around. Every youth camp starts with a meeting where the coaches tell us that their priority is to get us into the first-team. I think the coaches we have in place are really good and the system we’re working within is getting better. We can only go up from here.
Scouted: Aside from soccer, where do you see yourself academically after your senior year of high school?
Chris: Right now, I’m just focusing on finishing up my high school education. I’ll be honest, any player that plans to pursue soccer as a career needs to make sure they have time to finish their school work. It’s been difficult for me to finish my high school credits, along with competing professionally and travelling with the national team to India [for the Under-17 World Cup], but time management is a huge factor as to how I stay on top of my schoolwork.
Attaining a college degree is definitely a life goal of mine, but I think I’m going to take some time to settle down after high school is over. I haven’t really decided on a particular major to focus on, but I’m interested in giving marketing or business a look when the time comes.
Scouted: Before we go, who would you say Scouted Football, and our fans, should be on the lookout for next season at D.C. United and with the U.S. Youth National Team?
Chris: I have heard a lot of good news about Moses Nyeman. He was born in 2003, but I think he’s played a few matches for the U-19 side already. Ian Harkes is another player I would say you should have to keep an eye on. Ian and I are always pushing each other to get better because we share a similar position, and he’s one of my best friends at D.C. United.
Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, and Bryan Reynolds are all players in the youth system that will definitely be pushing for first team minutes next year with Atlanta and Dallas.
On the behalf of everyone involved with Scouted Football, we would like thank Chris for participating in such an extensive and interesting interview.
We cannot wait to see if Chris will breakthrough at D.C. United in 2018, or continue his exciting development at Richmond Kickers. Follow Scouted Football on Twitter to keep tabs on him.
Good luck, Chris!