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Spector aims to boost World Cup credentials

Jonathan Spector has an uncanny ability to seize opportunities. The 19-year old has been doing it for his entire soccer career.

Perhaps Spector's maturity helps him make the best of his situations. Soft-spoken and polite off the field, the young American plays with the poise and tranquillity common among world-class defenders, exerting a calming influence when he's on the field.

Spector, who signed with Manchester United in the summer of 2003, exudes a quiet confidence of someone ten years his senior. Now on loan to Charlton Athletic of the English Premier League, the young American looks at the loan spell as merely his latest chance to excel.

"Here I have a better chance of first-team football," said Spector. "I want to break into the first team here. Once that happens, anything can happen."

Spector's made a habit of capitalizing on opportunities early on in his career. At a youth tournament in Northern Ireland, injuries to his team's backline forced his coach to throw Spector, who at that point in his career was a striker, in as a defender.

Despite having never played defence, he took the field and accounted well for himself. So well, in fact, that he drew the attention of a Manchester United scout in attendance. Before long, he had signed with the Red Devils at the age of 17.

Spector played five times with Manchester United's first team last season, with his first start coming in a Champions League qualifier against Dinamo Bucharest. However, he found it difficult to play regularly.

"Alex Ferguson thought it would be good for me to go out on loan," said Spector. "It's difficult to break into the squad because they have so many talented players.

"But at the same time, I really enjoy being there. You can learn so much from playing and watching the best players in the world."

He caught on with Addicks from the onset, but an injury cost him his spot on the first team before the season started.

"In preseason, he looked perhaps our best defender," said Charlton boss Alan Curbishley. "Unfortunately, he picked up a slight hamstring strain two weeks before the season started and wasn't fit for the first game."

Spector attributes the hamstring strain to overuse. Instead of a summer break, he travelled to the Netherlands to compete with the U.S. U-20 team in the World Youth Championships, where he picked up another injury.

However, he's fully healthy now and Curbishley gave Spector his Charlton debut against Chelsea Saturday as a substitute.

He subbed on in the 70th minute for the veteran defender Chris Powell. But by the time Spector entered the game, Chelsea had struck twice and already proceeded to squeeze the life out of the game. However, Spector competed solidly in his first appearance in front of the home fans, who may not have much longer to enjoy their new star.

In the postgame, Curbishley hinted that Manchester United might come calling for his young defender's services around Christmas. An injury to star left back Gabriel Heinze, who could be out for the season after suffering ligament damage against Villarreal Wednesday, has once again thinned the Red Devils' back line.

A Chrismas-time call-back to Manchester United would remind Spector strongly of what happened on his Christmas vacation one year ago. Last season, Spector went to the U.S. fully expecting to go on loan to Blackburn. However, injuries in defense forced Ferguson to call Spector on his cell phone during a family dinner. Before he knew it, his winter vacation was over and he was back on a plane to the U.K.

In front of him lies his biggest opportunity to date. He's hoping a strong season for Charlton Athletic will earn a spot on the United States World Cup squad.

He made his national team debut as a second-half substitute against Jamaica on November 17th of last year. He hopes the "surreal" experience will be the first of many caps for Uncle Sam.

He's also honest about his desire to represent his country in next year's World Cup in Germany. "It would be especially important for me because I have a German background. We still have family over there," said Spector, who's mother immigrated to Chicago from Germany at the age of four.

In fact, it was his German connection that helped him secure his transfer to Manchester United in the first place. Spector's German passport allowed him to skirt the rules that deny work permits to people under the age of 18.

"It's something I would relish," Spector said about playing in the World Cup. "At the same time, I don't pick the teams. But right now, I'm concentrated on what I need to do here."

He believes if he prepares himself as best he can, his national team dreams will sort themselves out.

"He's just waiting for his opportunity," Curbishley said, summing up his young player's football career. "I'm sure when it comes along, he'll grab it."

Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN He can be reached at