Santino Quaranta is in his fifth season with D.C. United, making him among the longest-serving players on the roster. He's one of the team's clubhouse characters, "a clown and a wise-guy from Baltimore," teammate Ben Olsen said. Each morning, he leaves his 2-year-old daughter and fiancee for the 40-minute drive to RFK Stadium.
All of which makes it hard to believe he's only 20 years old.
Long before Freddy Adu arrived, Quaranta was the teenage soccer sensation in Washington. At 16, he scored five goals in his rookie year in 2001 and got off to a fast start the following season.
Then, because of a variety of long-term injuries, Quaranta all but disappeared. He missed the last three months of the 2002 season, played in only 12 games in 2003 and earned just 23 minutes of playing time last year.
But Quaranta is healthy again and, after appearing in each of the first four matches and scoring last weekend, he'll likely be in injury-depleted United's starting lineup today against the Kansas City Wizards at Arrowhead Stadium in a rematch of last year's MLS championship game.
"I've never been this healthy since I came into the league," he said yesterday. "It's been four or five months of steady playing. I've gotten over the hump and I'm enjoying myself every day."
Quaranta earned his first start two weeks ago at Columbus, relieving United's fatigued starters. Last Saturday, he entered midway through the first half, and after missing a tap-in shortly after halftime, he scored United's second goal during a 4-3 loss to New England with a quick, left-footed turn at the near post. It was his first league goal since scoring in the 2003 season opener at Kansas City and the 10th of his MLS career.
"He had a very good preseason and he's gotten rewarded for it," Coach Peter Nowak said. "We still need to remind him that the season is not over after he scored a goal. He has to continue to work this way. He cannot sit on his laurels and say, 'This is my first goal after two years and I'm going to be a starter and this and that.' We have a lot of options, especially up front, and I expect consistency from all these players."
Just being back on the field is a significant step for Quaranta.
Until Adu signed at age 14 before the 2004 season, Quaranta had the distinction of being the youngest player in league history after United drafted him in the first round (eighth overall) in the 2001 draft. He earned playing time almost right away, making 10 starts, and had a two-goal game at New England.
The following season was more of the same as Quaranta registered three goals and four assists in the first 11 matches. However, an abdominal hernia ended his season and marked the beginning of a frustrating two years.
His goal in the 2003 opener was his only one of the season, which was cut short by a knee injury suffered while playing with the U.S. under-20 national team. Last year, he tore the adductor muscle in the groin area during preseason and eventually underwent several procedures to correct the problem. A two-goal, one-assist performance in an exhibition against Municipal of Guatemala last September showed promise, but he wasn't ready for regular action.
"Four or five years ago I just had no worries in the world," he said. "I was just doing whatever I wanted to do on the field. Now I have more responsibilities [with his family] and I have something to play for every day. I appreciate it much more now. I see everything differently."
Quaranta made an impact in the season opener against Chivas USA, creating a scoring chance with a cutting dash from the right to the top of the penalty area that led to Christian Gomez's clinching goal.
At 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, Quaranta is suited to serve as a target man on the front line, but with his speed and agility, he's perhaps most effective as an attacking wing. Because of United's injuries, it's unclear what Quaranta's role will be today. Regardless, he's happy to be contributing again.
"It's nice because you get to see him grow up a little bit," said Olsen, a seventh-year veteran. "Those were some tough years. He's gone through a lot, and to see him score some goals, get some playing time and be relied upon, I think that's special."
United Notes: Alecko Eskandarian (thigh contusion), Steve Guppy (Achilles' tendon, hamstring) and David Stokes (concussion) didn't make the trip, joining long-term absentees Bryan Namoff (rib) and Dema Kovalenko (foot). Rookie Nick Van Sicklen (quadriceps) is also unavailable. Veteran defender Carlos Llamosa completed his tryout, which included a good performance in an intrasquad scrimmage Thursday, and it appears the club will try to sign him. "He's looking good," Nowak said. "We're going in a good way to make a deal, but there are too many questions right now. He's still an 'if.' "