About two weeks ago, when Santino Quaranta left Florida, where he had been training with D.C. United and the U.S. under-20 national team, and returned to his home town of Baltimore for personal reasons, you couldn't blame someone for thinking the worst.

After all, Quaranta is barely 18, a professional athlete since he was 16, with a rebellious streak. Although he has never gotten himself into big trouble, he's well known in U.S. soccer circles as a rascally character.

At first, the reason for his absence was kept quiet to protect his privacy, but once false rumors started circulating, Quaranta wanted everyone to know that he was fine, that his girlfriend, Petrina, was okay -- and that their child, Olivia Naomi, born early last Wednesday morning, was fantastic.

"I needed to be there with her and with the baby," Quaranta said this week after returning to Florida. "The team was great about it. They understood what I was going through and really supported me. The whole experience has changed everything."

While in Baltimore, Quaranta missed the under-20 team's trip to Portugal for three exhibition games and was separated from a United squad trying to build chemistry after another offseason overhaul. But he did commute to Washington almost every day to work out with United strength and conditioning coach Greg Petrosian, who's based at American University.

Quaranta arrived back in south Florida on Sunday and played in a preseason game on Monday.

"Judging from his whole demeanor, he's ecstatic over the whole event," Coach Ray Hudson said. "He's walking on air."

Despite the absence, Hudson said Quaranta hasn't lost any ground in the battle for a starting job. At the start of training camp, Hudson had said Quaranta and U.S. national team veteran Earnie Stewart were the favorites to start at forward, but cautioned that Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoitchkov and first overall draft choice Alecko Eskandarian were very much in the running.

The stiff competition for playing time comes at a critical career juncture for Quaranta, who made a strong impression as a rookie in 2001 (five goals in 16 appearances) and showed flashes of brilliance last season (three goals and four assists by early June) before sitting out the final three months with an abdominal hernia injury. United officials are hoping for an injury-free, breakthrough season.

"I don't think I've fallen behind at all," Quaranta said. "We're just starting to come together as a team and physically, I feel great. It could be a big year for me and for the team."

United officials have expressed concern about Quaranta's maturity and temperament, but with a young daughter now in the equation, Hudson says he has already noticed changes.

"He has responded very positively and I really think this is going to speed up the maturation process," he said. "He's not going to be able to have the life of a single footballer. I lived that life for many years [as a player in England and the North American Soccer League], and if you're not careful, it can be a big distraction. But just being around him, listening to him talk about his kid and his future wife, he just seems incredibly content and happy."

Quaranta said he and Petrina, who have dated since eighth grade and live together in a condo he recently purchased in the White Marsh area north of Baltimore, plan to get married, although they haven't set a date -- "and I haven't gotten her a ring yet," he said.

Having a child "is going to change me for the better," Quaranta added. "There's so much love in our home now, and this is what I'm living for. I want to work hard and support them the best I can and give my daughter a great life. It's a big motivation for me."

United Notes: The team will leave Florida on Thursday and spend most of the next four weeks practicing in Washington leading to the April 12 opener at Kansas City. . . . Hudson is among 27 finalists nominated for induction into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame. . . . Saturday's practice at RFK Stadium is open to the public, starting at 10:30 a.m.

United's Santino Quaranta, 18, is proud papa after birth of daughter, Olivia Naomi. "The whole experience has changed everything," he said.