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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 1 day ago
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Sep 14, 2004

Spector on special ride at Man. United

Jonathan Spector knew it wasn't going to last forever.

He knew that his meteoric rise from U-17 National Team standout in America to Manchester United youth and reserve team player to first-team starter for arguably the most talented club in the world in just a year's time wasn't going to be without a few bumps in the road.

That's why even before the 18-year-old from Arlington Heights, Ill., didn't get to play in Saturday's 2-2 draw with Bolton he was level-headed when speaking of his early-season fortunes as the starting left back for the Red Devils.

"It's only been three games," said Spector in an exclusive interview with ESPN.com last week from the home of his host family in suburban Manchester. "There are players on this team who have played and started in 100 games. So far I've been proud of my accomplishments and it's been a thrill, but I also know it's early in the season and it's very competitive to get in the lineup."

Indeed. Now that Paris St. Germain transfer Gabriel Heinze is back from international duty with Argentina's gold medal-winning Olympic side as well as the full national team's World Cup qualifying win over Peru, Spector is in a dogfight for the left back spot.

He played solidly in a Champions League qualifier against Dinamo Bucharest in his first career start and followed that with strong performances against Everton and Blackburn in Premiership play, but Heinze scored a goal and played very well in his Man. United debut over the weekend.

While Spector was listed as a member of Man. United's 18-man roster going into Wednesday's Champions League match with Lyon in France, he did not sit on the substitute's bench.

In the 2-2 draw against Lyon, Heinze actually slid over to the central defense with John O'Shea moving to right back now that Gary Neville is out for several weeks with a hairline fracture of his left knee. Wes Brown, who Spector played alongside at times for the reserves last season, got the nod at left back.

So, all of a sudden, Spector went from first-string to second or, presumably, third-string.

Regardless, Spector is ecstatic to have gotten his chance to play on the first team, and is quickly becoming a known entity around England.

"It's kind of weird, yeah," he said. "There have been bits in the paper about me over here. And more heads have been turning when I'm walking around or in a restaurant."

It's not hard to believe. Standing at 6-foot and with a curly, mullet-styled blond mane that screams out country singer, Spector is hard to miss. But at the same time, he's hardly living the same life that most of his teammates live.

In the short free time he has, the former Chicago Sockers standout has taken a few quick trips to London, and has made it out to the golf course on off days. In fact, he's had a lot my trouble with the links style courses than he's had with English football.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said jokingly. "It's not going well, let's just say that."

Living-wise, nothing has changed for Spector. Even though he's no longer considered a youth player and part of the Academy at Manchester United's famed countryside grounds in Carrington, Spector still lives with the same host family -- Janet and Terry Holden -- that he has lived with for the past year.

"You have to be 18 to move and live on your own," said Spector, who turned 18 last March 1. "So I could move. But now is not the right time. I'm still getting adjusted to playing on the first team, a lot more traveling and all the extra training that comes with it. The situation I'm in right now is what I'm comfortable with so I figure there's no reason to move yet."

The biggest difference between playing on the reserves and on the first-team for the famed Red Devils is the amount of work it takes on a daily basis. Training sessions are followed by weight room workouts.

If there is a week off in the schedule of games, as there was between Spector's last start and the Bolton match, off days are granted, but then are followed by grueling double sessions leading up to the next match so that everyone remains in game shape.

There's also a little factor called pressure.

At Man. United, you're supposed to win every match, win every title and every cup, and set a standard with your play that is unreachable for any other club in the world.

In short, when you play for Manchester United, it's like playing for the Yankees.

When you do well, there's not greater glory to bask in. But during every other moment in between, you have several tabloid headlines staring back at you, stories chronicling and overanalyzing every touch and every decision -- on and off the field, as David Beckham knows -- as well as a legion of fans on every continent to answer to.

That's a lot to deal with for any player, never mind a teenager. And no matter how well Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Claudio Reyna have done in the English Premier League, Spector is still an American player at the end of the day. And an American field player to boot.

"Oh yeah, there's quite a bit of pressure," said Spector with a bit of a laugh. "Don't get me wrong, it's a fabulous job, but you need to perform here or you won't be here long. I'm still young, so there's more pressure on the older players everyone knows to go out there and play well each match. But it's obviously still there."

Knowing that he's only 18 and a neophyte to the fast play of the EPL, several of his teammates have gone out of their way to be helpful to Spector.

Off the field, he's learned the most from watching Rio Ferdinand, who Spector calls "the greatest centerback in the world," while on the field it's been the players directly beside him and in front of him who have aided him the most.

"Mikael Silvestre has really helped me," said Spector of the French international centerback. "He had confidence getting me the ball right away, which I appreciated. Having (Ryan) Giggs on the same side was nice, too. Having Timmy (Howard) in the goal helps a lot too."

Playing left back, in general, has been somewhat of a new experience for the right-footed Spector, as well. Last year with the youth side, he played on the left side in a system that he said played with three pinched-in centerbacks and free-roaming wing backs on the outside that either looked like a 5-3-2 or a 3-5-2 depending on which team had the ball.

"And that was only for a few games," he said. "Other than that, I've never played that position in my life."

When he was told by Alex Ferguson that he'd be playing in such a position, it wasn't considered a big deal. Fergie, as he's affectionately known, didn't hold a one-on-one meeting or spend additional time going over his responsibilities. He simply inserted him into the lineup knowing that he could aid the backline no matter where he lined up.

"He knows I can play anywhere," said Spector. "I can play anywhere on the field, really. My whole life I was a midfielder and then I became more of a forward when I went into Residency (with the U-17 National Team in the spring of 2002) before they turned me into a central defender.

"As long as I'm out there and get to play, it doesn't matter to me one bit."

When Jimmy Ryan, Manchester United's Director of Football, initially scouted Spector with the U-17 National Team, he was impressed the most by his power and simple decisions.

During a year in which Spector won the prestigious Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year for the 2003-2004 season, he earned Ferguson's notice. In fact, while on a visit to the club last winter, Spector's father, Art, heard first-hand how well his son was thought of.

"He called me into his office and asked if everything was going okay with Jonathan," said Art, who has yet to see his son play in a match in person during his two previous visits to England (Jonathan records every game and then sends the tape back home), but is hoping to when he visits Old Trafford in October. "He then told me how well he was progressing and that he's been watching him."

When Ferguson included Spector in the squad that toured the United States this past summer, he spoke about his young defender's progress.

"The lad has great potential," said Ferguson to the Manchester United official website. "He's very quick, a good athlete and he made great strides last season. He had a good season in the youth team and made his mark in the reserves later on. He played a variety of roles and I think he picked up some good experience of English football."

Spector joked that Ferguson "doesn't say a whole lot," but he spoke glowingly about his team's manager and how he goes about his business with the team. He's learned things from Fergie that hopefully has prepared him to play for another successful manager - Bruce Arena.

"I've heard just a few rumors about maybe getting a chance," said Spector, who played in 89 combined matches for John Ellinger's U-17 National Team over a two-span from 2002 to 2003. "But it doesn't mean a thing until I do get a call-up. If I did, it would obviously be fantastic. I loved every minute of my time with the 17s and nothing beats playing for your country.

When reached on Wednesday morning, Arena said that it's important that no one jumps to conclusions just because Spector has seen time with Manchester United.

He said that it doesn't necessarily mean he's in the immediate plans for the National Team. Yet, Arena knows that he's someone who is likely to be a player who can help the side in the not-too-distant future.

"The bottom line with Jonathan is that he's an excellent talent," said Arena. "He's a player that one would suspect would be in the mix and be part of things as we move forward. However, he's got a long way to go. He's played a couple of games -- I think he's played out of position -- and I think he's done okay."

Arena saw Spector play in person when Man. United played Celtic in Philadelphia, and has seen several other games on television including the exhibition match in July when the Red Devils took on Bayern Munich in Chicago.

"I think he's handled himself pretty well," said the U.S. manager, who admitted he doesn't foresee Spector getting a lot of time with the depth Man. United has in the back. "He hasn't had to defend a whole lot, which I happen to think is a prerequisite to being a defender."

The biggest thing is that Spector is not someone who just rose up out of the ashes. In the past, players such as Cory Gibbs have done well overseas and earned call-ups as more of a way to see what they're all about both as players and as people. Obviously, that's not the case with Spector.

"We know him. We know him from his U-17 days down at Bradenton," said Arena. "I believe as he moves forward we're going to look at him. We'll bring him into camps like we do with a lot of the young players. Not necessarily to play him, but to look at him."

Spector knows that, too, which is why he's not sitting on pins and needles in Manchester waiting for an e-mail from the National Team staff. He knows he's in a good spot, and is trying to meet each challenge head-on as they come.

"Right now I'm concentrating on what I have to do over here. It's a big transition for me, so I have to focus on that first. If I do start playing really well and keep getting opportunities here, then I'll start thinking about the National Team a little bit."

Perhaps just in time to help the U.S. qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com