The first thing you notice about U.S. defender Zak Whitbread is that he talks funny. The second thing you notice is, well, you can’t really get past the fact that he talks funny. Ok, so he doesn’t technically talk funny, he just one of the few American-born citizens that has an English accent, as he’s lived most of his life overseas on the soccer-frenzy island.
The important thing is that Whitbread doesn’t play funny, as he has become the starting left back for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team during the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship. The 19-year-old Liverpool Reserves regular started and played all 90 minutes of the USA’s first game against Paraguay, and is expected to be an integral cog for the team’s backline for the rest of the tournament.
While his play has been solid for the U.S., his background has been a bit of a mystery, even to his teammates. Most of them had never even met the blond Englishman until U.S. Under-20 head coach Thomas Rongen called him in to play in the L’Alcudia International Tournament this August. He started in the team’s first three games, but until they saw him again at Frankfurt International Airport – when he met up with the team on their trip to the United Arab Emirates – the only thing they really knew about him was that they had trouble understanding him.
So, who is Zak Whitbread?
Whitbread was born on January 10, 1984 in Houston, Texas, but he didn’t stay in the United States too long. His English parents had moved to the U.S. temporarily as his father, Barry, was running soccer coaching schools, and within a year they moved back to England.
While growing up in England, Whitbread fell in love with the beautiful game and his passion translated onto the field. By the age of eight, Whitbread was invited to join Liverpool’s "Centre of Excellence," the clubs youth academy.
He played there for two years until his father was again on the move, this time taking Zak, his mother Lynee and his two sisters (now 16 and 21) to Singapore as Barry accepted the Assistant Technical Director position with the Singapore National Team. So, for the next five years, Zak lived in the Far East and watched as his dad was promoted to head Technical Director and then the National Team Manager. It was an interesting to time for Zak, to say the least, but his football development took a back seat.
"Then one day, my dad asked me if I wanted to pursue my football chances and I said yeah," Whitbread said from his hotel room in Abu Dhabi. "So, the family packed their bags and we moved back to Liverpool."
When Whitbread returned he began playing with the U-15 and U-16 Liverpool teams, progressed through the Academy and was eventually promoted to the reserve team this year. So far this season, he has played in 10 of 11 matches and even received a move up to the first team for Liverpool’s tour to Thailand. In the team’s final game, Whitbread was called on as a substitute and played the final 30 minutes.
"It was a great opportunity to play," Whitbread gushed. "I was a little nervous, but after my first touch I settled down and thought I did quite well for my first time. To see my jersey with my name on it hanging in the locker room before the game was just a dream."
As for choosing to play for the red, white and blue over the nation he’s spent most of his life, Whitbread said it was an easy decision.
"I just think the only place the U.S. can go is up in the game," said Whitbread, who had been offered a chance to play for England’s U-19 National Team about a year ago. "The U.S. has improved and I truly believe they will continue to and soon begin to become world class and perform well on the world stage. I want to be a part of that."
Zak gives his father a lot of credit for his development. Barry wasn’t too bad of a teacher either as he had been in Blackburn’s youth academy as a youngster and later played semi-professionally. Zak said his dad never pressured him to play and was supportive throughout his rise through the football ranks. Which begs the question: How in the world did Zak go to Liverpool when he dad bleeds Manchester United red?
"Yeah, I get a bit of stick for that," Zak said with a laugh.
Zak said he has gotten to know the guys better during the past week and is enjoying his time playing for the U.S. And he’s looking forward to helping his teammates make a run towards its first U-20 Championship.
"I hope we can go all the way," he said.
To many of his teammates, that is the one thing that doesn’t sound funny coming from Whitbread.