Why Chris Durkin returned to D.C. United

Chris Durkin’s plan was to play in Europe indefinitely, to remain with the small club in the Flemish region of Belgium for up to another 14 months, then perhaps seek another team, another league, another country on a soccer-fertile continent.

His pro career was on a steady path, having launched at 16 with D.C. United and, three summers ago, advanced overseas.

Plans change, however. The pandemic aggravated the isolation of being far from home. He longed for his girlfriend and family.

Though Belgium had provided wonderful opportunities on and off the field, it was time to come home. So last month, with Sint-Truiden late in the season, Durkin sold his bicycle, packed five bags and returned stateside to sign a three-year contract with United.

“At first, I didn’t picture coming back to MLS a reality,” said Durkin, a 22-year-old defensive midfielder from the Richmond area. “I was always thinking, ‘You know, I want to come back later, when I’m 28 to 29.’ I always pictured this as something later in my career.”

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Later is now. Filling a void in the heart of United’s formation, Durkin started as soon as the move was finalized, logging 75 minutes April 2 against Atlanta. He is expected to retain the role for Saturday night’s visit by Austin FC to Audi Field.

Since Durkin’s return, United has observed a different player and person.

“Physically, he got a lot stronger,” said Dave Kasper, United’s president of soccer operations. “His speed of play, his thought process are quicker. He was always clean on the ball, and he got cleaner.”

Furthermore, Kasper said: “He grew up a ton, having gotten away and learned how to take care of himself. Doing that in a foreign land is not easy. It’s invaluable experience for him.”

That independence, Durkin said, was beneficial but came with drawbacks.

In August 2019, three years into his MLS career, he realized his dream of playing in Europe by joining Sint-Truiden, a modest club that had gained promotion to Belgium’s first division in 2015. A one-year loan turned into a permanent transfer, and his contract was to run through the 2022-23 campaign. Over 2½ seasons, he made 72 appearances and 49 starts across all competitions.

The experience made him a better player, Durkin said, and “changed me a lot in maturing as a man.”

“I went over there with zero knowledge of how to take care of myself. I always had other people looking out for me. I knew I had to look out for myself. It wasn’t just about learning on the field; it was about off the field because these experiences are life-changing.”

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He settled into the picturesque city of 40,000 and lived in an apartment provided by the club. There were outings to Brussels, Amsterdam and London. His parents and his longtime girlfriend, Virginia Commonwealth soccer player Samantha Jerabek, visited.

Then the pandemic hit. The league was halted for five months. He and Jerabek did not see each other for 10 months. The strain of living abroad grew.

Midfielder Russell Canouse — Durkin’s D.C. teammate before and after the Belgian journey — empathized. Before signing with United in the summer of 2017, also at 22, Canouse played 6½ years in Germany.

“When it’s difficult, it’s really difficult,” Canouse said. “You’re young, and you don’t have a full support system there on a daily basis. … Maybe it didn’t go 100 percent the way he planned, but he continued to grow into his career and become an even better player. Those moments are key for your development.”

Said Durkin: “It feels like you can never get your mind off soccer. Video games or school is not the best answer. Just having people around helps.”

Though Sint-Truiden’s diverse group of players and coaches communicated in English, the depth of conversation was limited. So Durkin bonded with New Zealand midfielder Liberato Cacace. This winter, however, Cacace went on loan to Italian club Empoli.

Durkin decided he needed to leave, too.

“I felt like another year in Belgium wouldn’t have been the best for my happiness,” he said.

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Durkin could have waited for the summer transfer window to open for a possible move elsewhere in Europe, but he heard about interest from MLS teams, he said. Sint-Truiden agreed to sell him.

Around the same time, having declined to re-sign veterans Júnior Moreno and Felipe Martins, United was in the market for a defensive midfielder.

“I thought he was going to use that move [to Belgium] as a steppingstone to another club, another league in Europe,” Kasper said. “For us, hearing he wanted to come back was great timing.”

Because United had sold Durkin to Sint-Truiden, D.C. no longer retained his MLS rights. He would have to go through the league’s allocation order. Sitting at No. 11, D.C. negotiated a transfer fee with Sint-Truiden (about $600,000) and prearranged a trade with No. 2 Houston ($325,000 of general allocation money). Cincinnati had the No. 1 pick, but having just signed Moreno, the club passed.

“We knew D.C. would take me, if they got the chance,” Durkin said. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be Seattle or Vancouver — something closer to the East Coast. I knew realistically there were a couple teams where I would be happy to go.”

Given his experience, Durkin is embracing a larger role.

“I come back a better person, a better player, more mature, and I feel like I can bring a lot to this team,” he said. “That’s not putting a lot of expectations on myself. I just know the team needs me to perform well for us to do well. When I was a young player, I just didn’t want to make a mistake and I played it simple. Now I think it’s important to have impact on games.”

At some point, if things go well in his second MLS stint, Durkin said he could see himself returning to Europe. For now, Washington is home again.

“I would not have drawn this path up, but I’m happy with the way it unfolded,” Durkin said. “As a young player, you are so focused — you’ve got these horse blinders on — you sometimes don’t see the big picture. Being able to come back, I can at least settle down a little bit and see what has happened to me over the past six years as a pro.”