Editor's note: ESPN Soccernet.com writer Marc Connolly spent five days in England last week visiting American players who are part of the growing U.S. contingent who play professionally for top-notch clubs on both the first-team and reserve sides.
Jonathan Spector quickly found out what the environment was like around Manchester United when he was a 16-year-old on trial. It was October of 2002, and the Arlington Heights, Ill., native sat there alone in the locker room after training with one of Man. United's youth sides in hopes of getting a contract offer. While looking down to unlace his Nike cleats, he heard the footsteps of someone walking over to his stall.
It was Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Spector was prepared for the team's most prolific scorer and one of the world's best players to breeze on by, sort of like a high school senior walking by a freshman in the hall. But instead it was van Nistelrooy who walked over to him eager to meet the new American, and introduced himself by name.
"Like I didn't know who he was," joked Spector.
As the American defender, now 18 years old and listed as the youngest member of the first-team, would come to find out after signing with the vaunted club last May, that's simply the Manchester United way.
"So many of the guys are down-to-Earth," said Spector while in training with the Under-20 National Team in Bradenton, Fla. "You wouldn't expect it, but they talk to youth players without having any sort of attitude or conceit about them, especially van Nistelrooy."
While most clubs in England like to keep their first team separate from the youth sides, Manchester United's philosophy is to keep all of the players together, hoping that the young players will benefit from being around some of the game's greatest players, and the first-teamers will embrace being role models and provide advice and guidance to the next generation of Red Devils.
"It also keeps with the club's way of thinking that no one player is bigger than the rest," said Spector. "That was the case when David Beckham was here, and it's the same now with guys like (Roy) Keane, (Ryan) Giggs and van Nistelrooy."
Spector has seen that especially with the way fellow American Tim Howard has treated both himself and Kenny Cooper, a U.S. player on the Reserve Team, since leaving the MetroStars last July to play for Manchester United.
"Tim is a great guy," he said. "I already kind of knew that from Bob Bradley since I know him well from playing with his son, Michael, with the Chicago Sockers. I mean, if there's anything at all you need, Tim is always willing to help, and he's really easy to talk to. He had Kenny and myself over to his house one night to watch the NFL playoffs. It was something he didn't have to do, but we were so excited that he did. It's so encouraging to have him here and to see another American doing so well."
Since coming over to Manchester in September once the U-17 World Youth Championships were over, Spector has realized that the entire organization's professionalism and first-rate way of treating all of its players and every visitor that steps onto the grounds starts at the top with manager Alex Ferguson.
He realized that right away when the revered coach called him into his office to meet with him personally several times during a two-month period in the fall when Spector was only allowed to train, and not play in games, while FIFA held several meetings to decide the American's status. What was at question was whether Spector's contract was valid since a new FIFA rule was created over the summer that prohibits players under the age of 18 to sign with clubs outside of their home countries.
"It was frustrating the first couple of months," said Spector, who stands a little over 6-foot and weighs 180 pounds. "You'd work hard during the week and then there'd be no reward at the end. The game is pretty much everything. It's what you look forward to all week. It's what you're working for."
FIFA finally decided in November that since Spector signed before the rule went into effect that he couldn't be held back from playing.
"Jonathan was elated to get in a game after everything," said Jonathan's father, Art Spector, from his cellular phone in Chicago. "But what really struck us as a family was how well the Manchester United people, including Alex Ferguson, kept Jon on the straight and narrow and kept his spirits up while he wasn't able to play. I visited Carrington (Manchester United's training grounds) for the first time during that period, and he met with me about it, and made us feel a lot better. You can see how much he cares about all of his players."
"It's pretty unbelievable, actually, the way he makes you feel welcome at the club," said Spector. "You'd expect him to spend all his team on the first team, but he prides himself on developing the youth players. Ryan Giggs and David Beckham came from the system he developed. He knows everyone's name in the club, and is very amiable towards them. He'll always come up to you and say 'hey.'
A great example of the way the young players at Man. United are taught life-lessons outside of soccer came on an afternoon when a young boy from China sat by himself in the cafeteria. He was on trial, and didn't speak a lick of English, so he wasn't able to understand a few of the players when they offered him to join them at their table. That wasn't good enough for Fergie, though.
"The next day, Ferguson called us in to his office and yelled at every single one of us, saying that should never happen, and made all of us do push-ups," said Spector. "It just goes to show how much he cares about each and every player that comes into the club, no matter how good they are or what their future in the club might be."
While the young player from China, and countless others including Americans Jovan Kirovski and John Thorrington, have come and gone without ever getting a taste of first-team soccer, Spector is seemingly on the fast track at Man. United. Despite a series of injuries that have sidelined him at times over the past four months, he has started three matches for the Reserves squad, has been a regular with the Under-19 side, and has been one of the stalwarts of the U-18s when he's called back down to help them advance in the FA Youth Cup.
"Manchester United was the champion last year, and we want to repeat that again, so it's a top priority for anyone who is eligible to play," he said. "If there's a conflict, I'm with the youth cup team."
A conflict arose in January when Thomas Rongen held his first camp for the next group of U-20 players who will compete in the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships in the Netherlands. Spector, who was an alternate on the squad that lost to Argentina in the quarterfinals of last year's championships held in the United Arab Emirates, was not told that he couldn't
go, in so many words, but the Man. United coaches strongly urged him to not go because of an important FA Cup match.
Even when nothing is on the line, as was the case during the last week in February when Spector returned to the States for a week to attend Rongen's next U-20 camp, his Man. United coaches try to entice him to stay. For example, Reserve Team coach Ricky Spragia let it be known that if he stayed with his squad in Manchester that he'd start for the Reserves in a home match against Liverpool (Feb. 19), and would do so alongside first-team back Wes Brown.
"That would have been pretty cool, huh?," said Spector. "But you have to find a happy medium with these things."
At the same time, Manchester United coaches don't make promises about playing time to players who don't have a future with the club. The club's director of youth football, Jimmy Ryan, said that's exactly the case with Spector.
"We watched Jonathan with the Under-17 National Team and saw just how good of a young player he was," said Ryan, shortly after watching his own U-17s play to a 1-1 tie with Everton at Carrington on February 28. "He's a very strong defensive player who knows how to keep it simple very well. He's also a powerful player - one that we definitely think will develop into a very good player."
In the meantime, Spector is learning the ropes around town, and enjoying the lifestyle he keeps at Man. United. He lives with a host family -- Janet and Terry Holden -- along with two other players his age, but they're from England originally, like the vast majority of his teammates. His laundry and cooking are done for him, which Spector is quick to mention, yet he has a lot more freedom than he was used to while in Residency in Bradenton from the spring of 2002 through last summer.
"It's a lot different from being at Residency, where it's sort of a minimum security prison," said Spector. "Of course it had to be that way because the insurance issues, but it's just a more professional atmosphere here. They let you make your own choices."
Even though there was a small hesitation to let Jonathan go abroad rather than go to college, his parents are happy about it, as well.
"Jonathan is a bright kid, and he was an excellent student," said Art. "But it was a choice we had to make, and it was the right one. The fact that he has some semblance of family both within the club and with the Holdens, who really support him and are there for him every day, makes me feel better at night. Also, this is Jonathan's life, and for an 18-year-old to be at Manchester United playing soccer, there's absolutely no better place he could be right now."
Art has visited his son twice since he's been in Manchester, but has yet to see him play in a match. The first time he was there, Jonathan was still awaiting FIFA's ruling. The second time he was there, in early February, his son was injured and did not play in any matches. If Art doesn't make the trek across the Pond this spring, he's hoping that he'll see him on American soil playing for the Red Devils this summer when the club returns for a three-game tour that includes Jonathan's hometown of Chicago.
"We're kind of hoping that Fergie brings Jonathan with him when the team is here," said Art. "I can't even imagine what it'd be like to see him at Soldier Field out there with the first-team."
While Spector hasn't seen any action for the first-team as of yet, he already knows all about the chills that putting on the famed red kit induces.
"It's really a surreal feeling," he said. "Whenever I put the jersey on, I immediately think of all the history and all the great players who have worn the jersey. And also that you have a lot to live up to."
And at Manchester United, as Spector has learned, that means on and off the field.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com