Jonathan Spector admits it's not easy cutting through the brogue of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's legendary Scottish manager. But there was no misunderstanding Fergie's pregame talk at Old Trafford on Aug. 25. While giving his lineup to the team an hour before Man U's Champions League match against Dinamo Bucharest, the Boss dropped a bombshell: "... and Gary and Jonathan in the wide defensive positions." Just like that, the 18-year-old Spector would be the first American field player ever to make the Show at Old Trafford. "I thought they would have given me some notice," says the mullet-topped kid from Arlington Heights, Ill. "But I guess it was just the opposite."
It's hard to say which of Spector's feats since then has been more stunning: that he has started both in the Premier League and in Champions League games as a left-sided defender, that he looked entirely comfortable combining with such stars as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, or that he won Man of the Match honors in a 0-0 tie against Everton on Aug. 30. Spector's performance in the Theatre of Dreams has drawn raves from Britain's hard-to-please press, which has described him as "hugely promising" (The Independent), "a hit since his unexpected promotion" (the Manchester Evening News) and "one bright spot" in Man United's ninth-place start (The Express).
A gruff, Lombardiesque figure, Ferguson seems willing to buck European soccer's conventional wisdom and put more faith in Americans--Spector, starting goalie Tim Howard and reserve-team standouts Kenny Cooper and Giuseppe Rossi--than many of his counterparts. (French coaches have been particularly dismissive of U.K.-based Yanks, benching Brad Friedel, Eddie Lewis and Kasey Keller in recent years.) Yet unlike Howard, who spent five years developing in MLS with the MetroStars, Spector chose an alternative path to Man United, signing with the club last year at 17 and then excelling for a season with United's reserve and under-19 teams.
When Spector calls his discovery by Man U "strange and lucky," he's probably understating the case. In 2002 his U.S. under-17 team was playing at a tournament in Ireland when coach John Ellinger decided to make a halftime change. He moved Spector, then a little-used striker, into the central defense, and the U.S. won the game. Though Spector had no previous training as a defender, he started there in the next match, against Austria, and shut down a forward whom Man United scouts had come to see. They soon invited Spector for a 10-day tryout. Thanks to his German passport--Spector's mother was born near Cologne--he was able to secure a U.K. work permit. "As soon as they offered a contract, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do," Spector says. "But I figured there was no point in coming here unless I actually believed I could play for the first team."
A raft of injuries, suspensions and national-team call-ups decimated United's back line last month, forcing Ferguson to fast-track Spector, who had won the club's Young Player of the Year award last season. A muscled 6-foot, 180-pounder, Spector is a former AAU basketball standout, and though naturally right-footed, he's comfortable at any of the four fullback spots. "His progress has been quite rapid," Ferguson told reporters recently. "He's athletic, he's quick, and he spots dangers well. There are some things he needs to work on, but he'll improve because he's a listener."
Thankfully, Spector hasn't adopted an annoying British accent like, say, Madonna. "I'm trying to keep my own identity over here," he says. Restraint is the common theme. There's plenty of time to become a regular starter (though the sheer volume of games should keep Spector active). There's plenty of time to wait for his first U.S. call-up (though it figures to come later this year). And there's even plenty of time--more than a year, in fact--to still be a teenager, the youngest player on the world's most recognizable team.
The Class of 2003
Here's an update on four of Jonathan Spector's teammates from the U.S. team that finished fifth at the 2003 Under-17 World Championships.
Freddy Adu, midfielder, D.C. United, age 15. Four goals, one assist and 12 starts for improving prodigy.
Eddie Gaven, midfielder, MetroStars, 18. MLS All-Star has six goals and six assists.
Danny Szetela,midfielder, Columbus Crew, 17. Has seen only 23 minutes of action after high-profile midseason signing.
Guillermo Gonàlez, midfielder, Los Angeles Galaxy, 18. Five appearances, one start for player who may be Chivas-bound.
LIKE A VET
Spector has been impressive as a surprise starter on the backline for Manchester United.
ANDY MEAD/ICON SMI (INSET)
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