One of the obvious advantages of entering the professional game at a younger age is the opportunity to gain experience, both on and off the field. Overcoming the trials and tribulations of a sporting career at an earlier stage allows for development during a period of lower expectations and provides more space to grow. At the age of 23, Chris Durkin is beginning his eighth year as a professional, having already tested himself in Europe. The D.C. United midfielder appears to have turned a corner and is emerging as a key player in Major League Soccer.
Born in Hampton, Virginia, Durkin competed with Manassas Area Soccer Association, Prince William Soccer, Richmond Strikers, Richmond Kickers, and the D.C. United academy, earning East Conference Best XI and All-American honors. He appeared for Richmond in a USL Championship match and D.C. in a friendly against West Bromwich Albion while frequenting first-team training. The midfielder also spent several semesters at the now-defunct U.S. Soccer U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida.
In 2016, D.C. United inked him to a Homegrown contract at the age of 16, once the fifth-youngest academy signing in league history. The club praised his “maturity, ambition, and understanding of the game” as “unparalleled for a player of his age.” He continued to split time between Richmond and D.C., making his first-team debut in a U.S. Open Cup fixture. The next season was a similar routine with 11 USL Championship appearances and a start in the domestic cup competition, earning plaudits for his constant physicality, mentality, and aggressiveness.
Benfica as well as “teams in Germany and Italy” were interested in a transfer, but the decision was made to stay in MLS due to the “good support system” and “atmosphere” that supported his development while providing experience. In 2018, Durkin had his professional breakthrough, appearing in 25 league and cup matches. He picked up a handful of starts at defensive midfielder, with the league rating him as the 14th-best player under the age of 22 and Goal naming him a top-20 American prospect.
The next season, Durkin moved in and out of the lineup with youth international duty, featuring in 14 total matches and scoring his first goal in a 3-2 win over the Colorado Rapids. Midway through 2019, he went on a year-long loan to Belgian side Koninklijke Sint-Truidense Voetbalvereniging, or Sint-Truiden, driven by the desire for more playing time. The midfielder made 14 total appearances at a variety of positions during the COVID-shortened schedule, scoring one goal. The club made his move permanent for a reported $1.2 million transfer fee.
“[It was] a step into the unknown, but I have not regretted it for a second,” Durkin told Voetbalbelgie. “The group of players welcomed me with open arms. I have not experienced any adjustment problems. I immediately felt at home and was able to quickly focus on football... The difference between football in Major League Soccer and the Belgian first division is big. There is a lot more dynamic involved here. It goes up and down constantly. The intensity is much higher. My qualities fit well with this football: physical, dueling, team spirit.”
The next season, Durkin played in 28 league and cup matches, contributing one goal and three assists. Italian side Spezia was reportedly interested in his services, but the decision was made to stay in Belgium. The following season, he continued to be a regular contributor for Sint-Truiden but curiously returned to D.C. United in March on a three-year contract for a reported $700,000, a move born out of isolation stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The midfielder immediately assumed a role in the starting lineup, registering one goal and four assists in 29 MLS appearances while displaying a “quicker thought process and speed of play,” showing “effort and commitment.”
This year, Durkin has held onto his position, starting the first six matches and being used at a variety of positions for manager Wayne Rooney. He is cited as “one of D.C. United’s top offensive creators and busiest defenders,” with a “stunning effort” securing a recent draw against Orlando City SC. While currently out with a foot laceration, his return should continue the upward trajectory that could also possibly lead to a return in a different venue.
At the international level, Durkin was a frequent inclusion for various United States youth sides. After helping lead the U-17 team to a second-place finish and being named to the Best XI at the 2017 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, he played every minute at the ensuing U-17 World Cup, a campaign that ended in the group stage. His fortunes improved at the 2019 U-20 World Cup, featuring in four out of five matches during the run to the quarterfinals. The most recent call-up was a U-23 camp in 2019, but one of his primary motivations is to return to the program and make the squad for the 2026 World Cup.
A “composed midfield general at the No. 6 spot” with “vision and athleticism,” Durkin is capable of lining up out wide or on the back line. He is praised for having “a great range of passing, covering a ton of ground, and [displaying] physicality on both sides of the ball.” This season has seen an increase in successful aerial duels while also playing more crosses and completing more successful dribbles from a variety of positions.
“I’ve bounced around in different places, such as center back,” Durkin shared with SBI Soccer. “I played at right wingback actually a couple of games here in Belgium. At the eight, at the six and I’ve been predominantly a six my whole life and still would kind of view myself more as, but I’ve been playing a lot more as the eight, and that’s definitely more of the box-to-box, trying to influence the game more on the ball, in the attacking side and creating chances and finding those pockets in the middle to get on the half turn. The really difficult areas where it’s [a] tight space. All that has really helped me in my understanding of just the midfield role and all of those positions, and just having that understanding and that knowledge just helps gain more and more experience.”
Already a veteran in the sport at 23 years old, Durkin is becoming one of the more reliable young midfielders in MLS. After a promising youth career and strong performances in international fixtures, he appears to be living up to his potential and has even more room to grow. The USMNT may eventually call upon him, especially if his production continues to increase.