When the U.S. Under-17 Men's National Team arrived in Manchester, England last week to play its World Championship preparation matches, it wasn't the first trip to the city for central defender Jonathan Spector. And it won't be his last. At 16 years of age, Spector has already signed a contract with Manchester United and will begin playing with the club's U-19 and reserve teams in September as a defender. His journey to one of the best football clubs in the world was a strange one as just 15 months earlier, the Arlington Heights, Ill. native was fighting for playing time with the Under-17 MNT as a forward. As Spector gets to face some of his soon-to-be teammates tomorrow (August 7) in a friendly against a Manchester United youth team at United's Carrington Training Center, read how he completed his travel from bench to Man. U.
He was just trying to help the team.
A year later, 17-year-old Jonathan Spector was in England signing a contract to play for Manchester United’s U-19 and reserve teams.
It was May of 2002 and the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team was playing in the Ballymena International Tournament in Northern Ireland. The team was struggling on defense as a couple players were nicked up and couldn’t play to their full potential. Head coach John Ellinger was searching for a solution to tighten up his defense. He found it in Spector, a 6-foot, 180-pound blond forward sitting on the bench.
He'll never forget the day he made "the switch."
"I was a little nervous going in. I had never played defense for the national team," said Spector. "But I figured if he had the confidence to put me back there, I shouldn’t have any reason to be nervous. I figured it was also a good opportunity for me as well, because I wasn’t getting the playing time that I would have liked and this could be my way of contributing to the team on the field."
Ellinger put Spector in as a central defender at halftime of the team’s second game against Wales, which they ended up winning 2-1. It looked like it might work. Ellinger started Spector in the next game against Austria and the U.S. shut them out for a 1-0 victory. That’s when the coach knew -- it definitely worked.
After the game against Austria, Spector became a fixture in the U.S. Under-17 backline, but that wasn’t the only thing that he gained from playing that day. In the stands was a scout from Manchester United. He, too, figured Spector might be able to fit in as a defender for the most famous team in the world.
After a week-long tryout in September of last year, Spector was offered a contract and will be moving to Manchester full-time following the FIFA Under-17 World Championship at the end of this month.
In only 90 minutes against Austria, Spector’s life had changed dramatically. But the process had already been put in motion moths earlier.
Just four months before, playing in the tournament in Ballymena, Spector had already made a life-changing decision by leaving his family in Arlington Heights, Ill., to join the U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton, Fla. And at that point, it wasn’t going all that great.
When he started the residency in January 2002, Spector was hobbled a bit by a nagging hamstring injury and was finding it difficult to crack a starting line-up that had a number of stellar players.
"I was a little shaky from the start and I wasn’t getting much time playing as a forward," he said. "I’d come in toward the end of games for a few minutes every now and then. It was tough. I got a little homesick at first."
Then came "the switch" to defender and the "spotting" by the Manchester United scout.
"(Manchester) was actually going to scout the Austrian forward, but they saw me instead. I was marked up against him and they didn’t get a shot off the entire game. Our defense did a great job."
After the tournament, Spector said he had heard that some European teams might be interested in him, but no club had contacted him, so he figured it was just a rumor. But, a short time later, the rumor became reality as Ellinger told him that Manchester United was beckoning.
In September, after just his first year of residency in Bradenton, Spector was jumping on a plane by himself to Manchester for a tryout. Still a bit tired right after getting off his flight, Spector was told he had to go train with the team. Not the easiest transition, but one he was prepared to handle.
"I figured it was a big opportunity for me and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of it," Spector said. "I wasn’t really nervous, I was just anxious and pretty excited for the opportunity I was given. Not every American has the opportunity to play in Europe and I was lucky."
"I figured if it’s meant to be, it will. I just said I’m going to go in and work my hardest and hopefully I’ll get a good result out of it, and if not, it was a great experience."
It worked out better than he could have expected.
"The next few days went pretty smoothly and then they asked me to stay a few more days, which I was pretty excited about," he said. "Then the day before I left they offered me the contract and told me to go home and talk it over with my parents."
After making another trip out to Manchester, this time with his parents, Spector made the decision to leave the comfort of the states and begin working towards his soccer (he’d now say football) dreams. It probably wasn’t too hard considering he said he was given "the red carpet treatment," which included going to a few games (including a Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen), speaking one-on-one with Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, seeing Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the now departed David Beckham. Plus, there was a chance meeting with Ruud Van Nistelrooy in the weight room.
"He actually approached me," said Spector with an amazed smile. "I was a little scared and I didn’t want to go up to him. He introduced himself to me and I didn’t understand why he was introducing himself because everyone knows who he is. It was kind of amazing, because I had seen him the night before score either one or two goals and kind of tear it up."
"I was pretty honored that he came up to me and asked where I was from. I told him I was from America, and he said he’d love to go visit there sometime. He was a very nice guy."
Still needing to officially sign the four-year contract, and needing to do it before a new rule passed this year which requires a player to be 18 years old to sign a professional contract, Spector flew back to Manchester one more time in early May of this year. "I flew there, signed the contract the next day and flew out," Spector said.
He says he’ll miss his family, but it would just be like if he was going to college. He will stay with a family who has two kids (one his age, one a year older) also in Manchester’s youth program. He had stayed with the family during his tryout and said they were "really nice," so he figured he’d stay with them full-time.
And while he may not be playing college soccer in the states, he will take college courses as he trains with Manchester.
While he’s in England, Spector said he’s looking forward to meeting fellow American Tim Howard, who was recently signed as a goalkeeper by Manchester. And he’s hoping along with Howard he can help improve the image of American soccer players.
"I’m looking forward to the opportunity I have. I want to show how much American soccer has grown in the last few years, because I still don’t think we get the credit we deserve. I’d also like to play for their first team."
"There’s a little bit of pressure because people are going to be looking at me, see how I do and possibly rate American soccer by how I perform. Of course there’s pressure, but it’s not how I’m looking at the situation."
And while he’s looking to pick up where Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Eddie Lewis, Joe Max-Moore, John Harkes, and Brian McBride have begun, he’s hoping he won’t pick up something else some of them have – an English accent.
"It’s possible. A lot of people have told me I will (pick up an accent). I heard Brad Friedel speak just recently here and he has one. I don’t know, it’s looking a little bit shaky, but I’ll have another American here (Howard), so we can talk. But, who knows. If I do, I do."
The one thing he says he has already learned is how to handle adversity. Going from sitting on the bench to one of the top clubs in the world will do that to you.
Look what can happen when all you’re trying to do is help the team.