Tuesday, 24 February 2009

An American In London (part one)

The setting amidst the wide avenues and skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in London's Docklands is atypically English. In fact, it looks and feels American, an appropriate setting therefore to meet the player who calls the Windy City home. What first strikes you about Jonathan Spector is how young he looks. Despite his experiences in the tough arenas of the Premier League and international soccer, he still wears the boyish manner and unblemished face of a teenager. But as soon as he starts talking, Spector at once displays a professionalism that recognizes no boundaries. "London is a great city and has a lot more going on than Manchester," he states. "But it is more about where I am playing, not where I am living right now. I would be happy living wherever I am playing football."

Footballers of all ages feel homesickness, and Spector would not be the first high-profile American in Europe to feel it, but a 4,000 mile relocation seems to have had little effect. "Being here is doing what I want to do, so when I am over here I do not know I miss America too much," revealed the defender. "I miss my family and friends, but I am gaining more being here than losing anything. I was in Chicago last summer and I'm not sure when I'll be back. I think it is a great city, but what I enjoy most is being with my family and friends, not the actual city."

Spector's love of football took root at his family home in Arlington Heights, Illinois, only a few doors away from another man whose path in the game Jonathan would come to follow. "I come from Arlington Heights, where the racetrack is. The Fire almost moved there, but I am glad they did not as I like going to watch the horse races when I am back there. Soccer is a big thing in that area. Brian McBride is from Arlington Heights and actually lives about five minutes from me. I would have gone to Buffalo Grove High School where he went had I not gone to St. Viator, a private Catholic school. We grew up in the same area, but played for different clubs."

Sport was a consuming passion for the young Jonathan and his elder brother, especially as their grandfather played professional basketball, but soon enough the football came to dominate. "I did track, cross-country, basketball, volleyball, a bit of tennis and I tried to play golf, but I think I always had a soccer ball," he recalled. "I played basketball with one of my teddy bears and one of my mom's chandeliers and I played soccer in the house all the time. She did not like it although I can't remember actually breaking anything. Then I played in a kind of league when I was four years old.

"Both my parents liked football," Spector continued. "My dad is of Irish/English origin and grew up in Philadelphia, which was a melting-pot like Chicago so he was open to a number of international influences. There were a lot of Italians and Germans there, so obviously football was big." And the German connection turned out to be the key one, cementing his love for football and later freeing him to bypass the paperwork to play in England.

"I could get a German passport because my mother was born in Siegen, Westphalia, so that helped further my career as a professional footballer in Europe. I have my mom to thank for that. I was extremely fortunate. My first football club was Schwaben A.C. in Chicago and it was unique because all the coaches and the families involved were from a strong German background and they all spoke German to each other. It was my first international footballing experience!"

With Germany based in Chicago during World Cup USA '94, Spector's Teutonic heritage paid dividends again as he got to meet his football hero. "One of the coaches on the team knew Jurgen Klinsmann's father when they were in Germany together and he was able to arrange for me to meet him at the team hotel before one of their games. I had always grown up a supporter of the German National Team, and in particular Klinsmann, so it was a big experience to meet him. He was the player I looked up to the most because I played striker like him when I was younger. Because of my strong German background I have always supported the German National Team and German football in general."

After Schwaben, Spector graduated to Chicago's Sockers F.C., a renowned source of youth development and a "turning point" for the young German-American. "I was there as an Under-13, and then for two or three seasons before I joined the National Team. Everything really took off for me there." In 1999-2000, the Premier Cup, the biggest under-15 tournament in the world, was Spector’s first exposure to international competition and helped change him from a Chicago high-school kid, with no designs on becoming a professional footballer, to the determined young talent he was to blossom into. He played at the finals held in Amsterdam when the Premier Cup was run by Nike. Set up in the early nineties by the US sportswear giant to help demonstrate its commitment to youth, alumni include Jose Antonio Reyes, who played in the Premier Cup for Sevilla in 1996-7 and 1997-8, Fernando Torres, Andy van der Meyde, Mikael Forssell and Carlos Tevez.

"It was the first time I’d been exposed to soccer of a really high standard," he said. "Kids playing soccer in the US don’t get the chance to play too many international competitions. We won the Nike National Tournament, the National Kellogg's Title, and I played in my first international tournament. It was an eye-opener to see how competitive and talented the other players were and I think that was the moment I decided this is what I want to do. I wanted to be a top player at the top level."

Professional football now his chosen career path, the next step was to decide between high school and a college career or a place at US Soccer's residency programme in Bradenton FL. He chose the latter and graduated in their class of 2003 alongside Freddy Adu and Eddie Gaven. "I did consider going to college as I had a number of great schools that were interested in me like Duke and Princeton," he recalls. "It was difficult to say no to Princeton, but I have no regrets. Instead I got to play with the top players in the country at the time and I improved a great deal. The experiences I have had are amazing compared to most people my age. I would have liked to have the college experience though. I was pretty close to going. I visited a bunch of schools: Boston College, Notre Dame and UVa. I was at Princeton right when A Beautiful Mind came out, so it was cool to see the campus. But I wouldn’t trade what I have done.

"I worked with sports psychologists, did weight training, speed training and the national team coaches helped me out a lot. John Ellinger, John Hackworth, Peter Miller and all of those guys did a great job and I cannot thank them enough for the knowledge that they passed on. It was also a great life experience for me moving away from home, aged fifteen," says Spector. "A lot of people ask me if I miss not having my high school experience, but I would not change a thing - no regrets. I had a great time down there and played with some great players. The experience I have had with the national team in general has been fantastic. There are not many kids who can travel the world and see so many different countries. I had a plan, but that all kind of got turned upside down," he explains. "When I first went to Bradenton, I figured I would be there until my junior year, play in the Under-17 World Championship, go back to St. Viator High School in my senior year, go to college for four years and then play professionally."

Given his experience of Manchester United's famous youth set-up and latterly the even more revered West Ham United Academy, it begs the question of how Bradenton compares, yet his recollection is very positive. "Nowhere else in the country is there a programme where the top players are able to train together," noted Spector. "In England, the clubs have great youth programmes, but in America we don't have that. And because we are such a big country, scouting is so difficult with so many players to watch, so Bradenton might be the best solution for now. US Soccer has done a great job building it up and they have put a lot of money into it so hopefully it will pay off."

While Spector's route to the top seems an obvious one to follow, he is surprisingly not quick to agree: "Claudio Reyna opted to go to college first, but he was still successful. Brian McBride went to college first and look at him – he has had a great career. Tim (Howard) did not go to college either and went to MLS and now he is playing for Everton. Top players find their way to the top. And some would do better in the MLS – Landon Donovan, for example. He had trouble when he went to Germany, but he is obviously a great player, has been successful at World Cups and is still a great player in MLS. I just felt it was better for me personally to come to Europe."

Spector is primarily a defender for West Ham and the US now, but it was not always so - playing for the US Under-17's at the Ballymena international tournament in 2002, he made perhaps the quickest conversion from a striker to defender in soccer history in all of ten minutes. "That is right!," he laughs. "I was a striker, and at half time, (John) Ellinger pulled me aside and said 'You're gonna play center half, and Hackworth is gonna tell you everything you need to know'. Hackworth did a great job. He set up the cones and said positionally 'you have to do this and that', 'when this is here, you have to be there' and so on... he only had ten minutes as I had to warm up as well. Actually it was in the next game against Austria that the United scout who was there to watch the forward I was marking, noticed me instead. So it was kind of lucky how it worked out. We had a shutout and I don’t think they had any shots on goal. That was the first time I had ever played defence. It was big ask, but I guess it worked out."

Not long after came the approach from Manchester United, in September 2003. "As soon as they offered me a contract, I could not say no to them - although, I thought I might have to persuade my parents!" he chuckles. "It was on my last day of being on trial that they offered me a deal." Arriving at Old Trafford it seemed a dream had come true, but a FIFA rule on overseas players aged under 18 meant Spector found himself on the sidelines unable to kick a ball in anger. "I actually came over quickly because Steve (Kelly, his agent) told me FIFA were about to implement that rule so for the first couple of months I was just training without playing. It was extremely frustrating, but I was not going to complain as I figured 'How many 17-year old Americans are playing in Europe for Manchester United?' I thought 'make the most of the opportunity while you are here and keep working hard'. So I stuck with it and eventually they gave me clearance and the first day I was allowed to play, I was in the starting line-up."

Spector's debut for the Red Devils came in Manchester United’s opening 2004 US tour game against Bayern Munich in Chicago, where he looked like he had been a centre-back since wearing nappies. Even with 58,000 watching and, perhaps more frighteningly, Roy Keane alongside him, he purred through the game, demonstrating poise on the ball, speed on the ground and an eye for the tackle. "He spots danger quickly," enthused Sir Alex Ferguson at the time. It was a rather uneventful 0-0 draw that day at Soldier Field, but Spector recalls it differently. "It was a dream," he said. "It could not have been more perfect to be honest. My favorite clubs growing up were Bayern Munich and Manchester United because they were always on TV a lot. I never thought I would be able to play for and against my two favorite teams in my hometown with all my family and friends there. I had not even thought about until it happened. I never get nervous before games, but I was really excited before playing in that one."

A teenager who does not get nervous on the big stage, even when representing his country at age 18? Perhaps the main reason Spector has got where he is and will go further. "I never really worry about how big of a game it is, no," he explains. "I have never really gotten nervous before big games. I am just quietly confident in that sense. I think you have to be to be successful at this level. I never get too worried or concerned about anything to be honest. Some people feel nervous before games and that may be a good thing for them. But I never get nervous and that is a good thing for me. It is a great thing and I don't know where I got it from, but I guess I am fortunate to have that disposition."

Most people saying these words would come across a touch arrogant, but that is the last impression you would get about Jonathan Spector. He is such a level-headed and pleasant young man to meet that you come away with the firm impression that there is no chance of success going to his head. "I am quietly confident, but try not to feel arrogant about it," he confirms, in case there was any chance of being misunderstood. "You have to feel confidence in your own ability and feel somewhat arrogant on the field, but once you step off I do not see any reason why you should have that attitude."

But defenders by nature 'get stuck in' and Spector is professional enough to know when to leave his nice guy persona in the dressing room. In doing so, he reveals a tigerish determination to succeed. "I have a competitive nature, so I do become a bit of a different person when I step across the white line. I want to win and I will do whatever it takes for my team to win whether it is jumping in front of a shot or whatever."

And to mischievously puncture the clean cut image further, you could bring up his sending off for the Under-17's in 2003's Dallas Cup, when he indulged in some 'afters' on a Newcastle United striker. Spector laughs at the mention of the incident. "What is funny is that when I came to England, I actually came up against the guy in a Man United reserve match! But it was very pleasant and we chatted before the game," assures Spector. "There was nothing negative. It had just been the heat of the game and we had both wanted to win and I was unfortunate in that game but I was happy we beat them in the reserves! I do not agree with going after someone, but you do what you do if you have to win. If you commit a professional foul, as long as you don't want to hurt someone, well sometimes you have to do that."

So Spector may look and sound young and amiable, but he is a fighter on the field and an intelligent one too. Sigi Schmid, respected former coach of the US Under-20 team once observed: "Spector is our only defender who really organizes and talks at the back. Even our team doctor, who has little soccer experience, noticed that." Perhaps learning good behavior through football is a staple of youth coaching manuals in the US, but remains largely absent from their English equivalents? "Absolutely," agrees Spector. "The cultures are slightly different. And in America, one thing I notice is a lot of positive reinforcement from coaches, but in England it is more 'this is what you have to do to win.' They are more hard-nosed here. But I think that mentality makes the English Premier League so competitive and so exciting to watch."

Which is not to say that American culture has not permeated other areas of British football. "In England it’s massive," he smiles. "American culture is so big here. It’s way worse at my club team than it is with the National Team. I don’t spend much money on jewelry but there is certainly a lot of bling floating around West Ham though. I won’t say who, but I did see a diamond grill (shaking his head)." So if not jewelry, what indulgences doesn't he like people to know about? (Which of course, they will now…) "On the bus going to our games, it’s amazing the amount of chocolate bars we eat," he confesses. "Say we are going from London to Birmingham. It takes three hours to get there, mostly because we always leave at rush hour. Explain that! Anyway, when you’re bored you eat, and for some reason there are always chocolate bars around. The average player consumes 2-3 per bus ride. Fortunately I can hold myself to one a trip."

Apart from candy-infused theobromine and tryptophan rushes, could he sum up the formula for football success? Spector replies: "For me personally, the most important thing is hard work. I have had that drilled into me by my parents. Each team needs someone who is just going to work hard. The mental aspect is important too. You have to be mentally strong enough to be successful in your own right and confident in your own ability because there will always be people who say you are not good enough, not big enough, not strong enough or not fast enough. A player must be strong in more ways than one."

Such assuredness implies a young man mature beyond his years, who perhaps has already distilled a formula that could be useful one day in management. For once, he sounds less sure, as if suddenly looking down the mountain he has just climbed. "I do not know if I have focused in on the exact formula that I could pass on yet. I am still learning, but I hopefully have a long and successful career ahead."

Jonathan Spector's grandfather, Art, was an old-time basketball star for Boston Celtics. 'Speed' Spector they called him. He was the first player to sign a professional contract for the Celtics and features heavily in an official history of the franchise. From time to time, Speed’s grandson gets the booklet out and leafs through it for inspiration.

Maybe there is an ingrained professionalism that can take you far? "That is one thing I would attribute to US Soccer," he replies. "When you watch the National Team play, every one of those players works extremely hard whereas certain countries have a few players who feel they do not have to do this or that because they are so talented. The one thing with American teams is that every player is going to work as hard he can. The work ethic is more important in the United States - not just for athletes, but for everyone actually. That is definitely one of the culture differences. Whether it is right or wrong, who is to say? But one thing you are going to get from Americans is a team who are going to work hard no matter what the score is."

1 comment:

Trilby said...

Rainer- email me if you get the chance and we can discuss things further.


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