Spector Brings Experience to U.S. Defense

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009

PARK CITY, Utah, Sept. 4 -- High in the Wasatch Range, where summer is stubbornly giving way to autumn in this fashionable village, Jonathan Spector is thousands of miles and a world apart from the spectacle of English soccer, and in particular, from the ruckus caused by unruly fans in London last week.

The serene mountain setting, where the U.S. men's national team has been training ahead of Saturday night's World Cup qualifier against El Salvador at Rio Tinto Stadium on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, starkly contrasts with the scene that unfolded inside and outside Upton Park.

Spector and his Premier League club, West Ham, were hosting third-tier Millwall in the League Cup, a tournament that pairs teams of differing stature. Because of deep-seeded animosity between groups of hard-line supporters of the London-based outfits, authorities had braced for trouble.

Before the game, fans brawled outside the stadium and one man was stabbed and seriously injured -- a chilling flashback to the ugly days of English hooliganism, which had been all but eradicated. Inside, West Ham backers raced onto the field after each of the club's goals during a 3-1 overtime victory.

"I can't say I have ever experienced anything like that in my life," said Spector, a 23-year-old defender from the Chicago suburbs who played all 120 minutes of the second-round match. "It was a shame that a few fans can spoil the game for everyone else. That is not the way to promote the sport or to promote the English game to the rest of the world. It's hard to enjoy a win when that other stuff is going on."

On the bus ride to the stadium, Spector and his teammates saw signs of impending trouble: boarded-up shops and a heavy police presence. Inside, while fans were hurling insults at one another, "you drown them out until they are actually out there [on the field] with you," he said.

"You try not to get angry because obviously they are very intoxicated. They are saying, 'Great job!' and you're saying, 'Thanks, but would you mind getting off the field so we can continue the game?' You try to help shepherd them off, but at the same time you've got to be careful. You don't really feel threatened; a lot of it was kind of funny because there were some big guys with their shirts off, waving them around and sliding around the field."

That chaotic match added to Spector's English odyssey, which began after high school with a move to fabled club Manchester United, continued with a loan to Charlton and then a transfer to West Ham three years ago.

After a series of injuries interrupted his club development and derailed hopes of making the 2006 World Cup and 2008 Olympic squads, he has become a regular in one of the world's most demanding leagues and this summer established himself as one of the U.S. team's top defensive options.

He started at right back at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, assisting on two goals during the Americans' stunning run to the championship game. On Saturday, with the back line in flux because of Oguchi Onyewu's suspension and Jay DeMerit's groin injury, he might line up on the right, in the middle or on the left, a position he has played for West Ham this season.

Spector is from Arlington Heights, Ill. His grandfather, Art, was the first player to sign a contract with the Boston Celtics in 1946, and both Jonathan and his father were basketball standouts. At age 14, Jonathan became friends and schoolmates with Michael Bradley, now a national team midfielder whose father, U.S. Coach Bob Bradley, was guiding MLS's Chicago Fire at the time.

Outside their youth soccer routine, Jonathan and Michael trained informally with the Fire.

"At a pretty young age, you're learning how to be a professional, what it takes and what it is all about," Spector said. He later entered the under-17 residency program, played in world tournaments and, during a 2003 trip to Northern Ireland, was spotted by a Manchester United scout.

His mother's birthplace (Germany) cleared the way for a European Union passport and a work permit. Among dozens of young prospects in United's system, minutes were difficult to earn, and after playing in three first-team league matches, he was loaned to London-based Charlton for 20 league appearances in 2005-06. However, a dislocated shoulder ended any chance of making the World Cup squad.

United then sold him to West Ham, where he played regularly on a team that barely avoided relegation to the second division in 2007. He remained a fixture in the lineup and seemed on track to start for the U.S. under-23 team at the Olympics until a hip injury knocked him out for six months. Besides a concussion this spring, he has remained healthy -- a promising sign as the World Cup approaches.

"The timing will hopefully work out for me this time -- it hasn't been the best," he said, laughing. "I'd like to think the big injuries are behind me and I can stay on the field."

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