D.C. United declined the contract options for nine players, including Northern Virginia product Andy Najar, but will continue contract negotiations with free agent Donovan Pines as the club begins rebuilding its roster for next season.
The MLS side announced Friday that it has 19 players under contract heading into the offseason, creating some salary cap flexibility for new general manager Ally Mackay. Along with Najar, the club opted out of eight other player contracts, including Yamil Asad, Eric Davis, José Fajardo, Jacob Greene, Brendan Hines-Ike, Erik Hurtado, Nigel Robertha and Gaoussou Samake.
Najar, born in Honduras but grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, was on his second stint with D.C. United after spending the last eight years playing aboard, including seven years for Belgium side Anderlecht and one season with MLS side LAFC.
The winger, who began his career with the Black-and-Red as a teenager in 2010, returned to D.C. in 2021. He quickly regained his status as a fan favorite with his dribbling abilities and aggressive play, becoming a pivotal contributor to D.C.’s attack. In three seasons, Najar started in 55 of the 70 matches he played in, scored once, scored once and provided five assists.
Prior to United’s announcement, the Honduran thanked United fans in a post on his Instagram account. He told reporters last month that he was awaiting D.C.’s decision on his contract situation before exploring options in Europe, MLS or Honduras.
“We didn’t achieve the success I was hoping we could achieve in my return but I appreciate the opportunity, the times, and memories we made together,” the Instagram post read.
According to the MLS Players Association, Najar’s salary last season was $450,000.
Defense dominates releases
Five of the nine players whose contracts were not picked up were defenders.
Just like Najar, 29-year-old Brendan Hines-Ike joined D.C. in 2021 as part of a loan deal with Belgian side K.V. Kortrijk and quickly made himself an essential piece in United’s backline. After making 13 appearances and scoring once, D.C. signed the center back on a permanent deal, paying K.V. Kortrijk around $800,000.
For the next two seasons, he battled multiple injuries, including a foot injury that was career-threatening. He finished the 2023 season only playing 12 matches.
“It’s with a heavy, but grateful heart I share my time here has come to an end,” Hines-Ike said in an Instagram post. “My hopes are that each person I met, I was able to touch their lives in a positive way and I hope I gave you my full authentic self each and every day.”
Another defender who will not return to D.C. is center back Derrick Williams, 30, who came over via a trade from LA Galaxy last offseason.
The Ireland national’s contract expired following the end of the 2023 campaign, making him a free agent. Despite battling injuries, he started in 21 of the 23 matches he played, scoring once. Williams made over $870,000 last season, according to players association data.
The shake up leaves United with six defenders. Only three (Steve Birnbaum, Ruan, Pedro Santos) played double-digit matches last season.
United is in conversations with select players who had their options declined or are out of contract about returning to the club next season, the team statement said.
Pines enters free agency as offseason activity begins
One question remains unanswered: the status of defender and Prince George’s County, Maryland, native Donovan Pines.
After rising through the ranks of United’s youth academy and spending three years with the University of Maryland’s men’s soccer team, Pines joined D.C. on a homegrown deal in 2019. That deal — which did not count against United’s salary cap — expired at the end of the 2023 season, making him a free agent.
While he has not been a constant starter in United’s backline, the 6-foot-4 center back has been an imposing threat, limiting attacks using his size and speed. Last season, Pines played the most minutes of his career (1,846) and scored three goals.
If a new deal cannot be reached with D.C., Pines’ agent told The Washington Post the defender could seek a move to Europe.
A United spokesperson told WTOP that Pines is one of the players it is in discussions with to bring back to the club.
Meanwhile, D.C.’s technical staff will head to Phoenix, Arizona, from Dec. 6 to 9 as part of the MLS College Showcase: an event that will allow MLS clubs the chance to scout collegiate talent, including players with remaining NCAA eligibility, prior to the MLS Draft.
On Dec. 11, the league will open its trade window.
United will have one designated player slot available for a signing that won’t count against the salary cap. D.C. must also decide if it plans to retain midfielder Gabriel Pirani, whose loan from Brazilian side Santos expires in December.
Also on the table is the hiring of a new head coach after the club and manager Wayne Rooney agreed to part ways at the end of the 2023 season.
Tasked with rebuilding United’s roster and hiring a new coach is Mackay, who became United’s first general manager in over a year, after his hiring on Nov. 20. As part of his role, Mackay only reports to team ownership.