Jonathan Spector shelves Premier League ambition for Orlando adventure
Jonathan Spector found the idea of joining Orlando City so compelling, he was willing to give up on a dream to make it happen.
Spector joined the Lions last month, but prior to that move he had been the rare American player who had spent his entire career overseas, in his case playing 14 seasons with clubs in the top two tiers of English soccer. Along the way he achieved some memorable personal milestones. He played in the Champions League with Manchester United, as well as the Europa League with Birmingham City. He logged more than 300 first-team appearances. At international level, Spector earned 36 caps for the U.S. and was part of the Gold Cup-winning side of 2007, as well as the team that reached the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup.
But ever since being part of the West Ham United side that was relegated from the Premier League in 2011, Spector's goal had been to help Birmingham City -- and himself -- get back to the top flight. The Blues came close during the 2011-12 campaign, his first season with the club, but lost out in the playoffs to Blackpool.
As the years drifted by, Spector's prospects of getting back to the Premier League dwindled, however. So when Orlando manager Jason Kreis paid the defender a visit in England, Spector was willing to listen. After all, Major League Soccer has more than doubled in size since he first went overseas.
"The Premier League was a target of mine, and part of me felt like I'd be leaving something unfinished there," he told ESPN FC.
"But then on the other hand, the opportunity to come to Orlando was too great to pass up. I had the chance to speak to Kreis before making the move, and everything he had to say about the way he wants the team to play, and the role he thinks I'll have in the team, as well as the excitement in Orlando about this team, it spoke volumes."
Kreis is certainly delighted to get his man. At the conclusion of the 2016 MLS season, he knew he had a hole to fill at center-back. The Lions had given up a league-worst 60 goals, and he was well aware of what attributes he required. He needed a player with high-level experience. He needed leadership. And given the possession-based style Kreis has long championed, he needed someone comfortable on the ball.
"We feel like Spector checked all those boxes," Kreis said. "In the end, we're very, very pleased with what we've gotten."
Spector certainly has plenty of experience from which to draw. He signed with Manchester United in 2003 when he was just 17. He was spotted playing for the U.S. Under-17 national team at a youth tournament in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. A United scout was there to see an Austrian striker, but Spector caught his eye instead. A week-long trial followed, with Spector being offered a contract personally delivered by then-manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Plans to attend college were immediately shelved.
He said: "I remember thinking on the flight home, 'How am I going to convince my parents that this is right for me as opposed to going to college?' But they were really supportive of that decision. It just seemed like a no-brainer. I could always go back to school if things don't work out, but I was going to give it every opportunity. It was a difficult one to pass up."
Spector went on to spend three seasons with United, one of which was spent on loan at Charlton Athletic, who were in the Premier League at the time. He ended up making just eight appearances, but Spector has nothing but good things to say about his time at United, as well as Ferguson.
"Ferguson was great to play for," Spector said. "I know a lot of times he gets a bad reputation in the media, but I have to say his demeanor and the way he treated young players was second to none. The last night I was there for my tryout he personally offered me the contract and said: 'I don't want you to make any decisions now. You're not signing anything. Go home, discuss it with your family. If they're happy to pursue this, we'll fly everyone out so they can see what your day to day is going to be like. We'll bring them to a game, they'll see where you'll be living.' He was incredible in that regard. He understood how important it was, that they were going to be comfortable with me living in England at such a young age.
"And then once I was there nothing really changed. He was great with me the entire time. I'll never have a bad word to say about him and certainly I don't think anyone is going to criticize the success that he had there."
Spector soon moved to West Ham where he spent five seasons until he was cut loose following the aforementioned relegation campaign. He then moved to Birmingham City for parts of the next six seasons.
Along the way, Spector showed off an impressive level of versatility, playing everywhere along the backline as well as in midfield. He admits never being able to call one position his own was both "blessing and hindrance" but ultimately it was a trait that helped keep him on the field. So how is it that he proved to be effective at so many different spots?
"I think part of it is just having the mindset of being adaptable," Spector said. "I think also playing in various positions there's certain things that are important for that position. If I'm playing outside-back, crossing is important. Whenever I've been told that I'm playing in a position for an extended period of time, I've always worked hard on what I needed to do in that position. If I'm playing as a central defender, it might be heading. I'd always spend extra time in training to work on those things and improve myself. I think that's been a big factor in that for me."
While Spector featured almost entirely as an outside-back for the U.S., Kreis made it clear that he views Spector as a center-back, going so far as to say: "Every time I watched Spector play as a right-back, I felt like: 'That's a center-back playing right-back.'"
That is fine by Spector, who thinks the position suits him better than anywhere else on the field.
"One of my strong suits is reading the game and understanding the game and it's easier to communicate with players around you and get players in position from the middle of the field as opposed to on the sides," he said.
What has also helped Spector's adaptability is that he's continued trying to soak up knowledge throughout his career. He expects that to continue with Orlando, while also imparting his wisdom on the team's younger players.
"Even at age 30 now, coming back here, I'm not done learning, far from it," he said. "I think if you're a player who is ambitious and wanting to do well, you're constantly learning. No one is ever going to be perfect in this game. There have certainly been players who have come close. I don't view myself as one of them and I'm here to learn and improve still even at my age."
If he can improve Orlando's defense, it will go a long way toward fulfilling another dream, that of securing the club's first playoff berth.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.