Tuesday March 2nd, 2010

AMSTERDAM -- On a U.S. soccer team that has several versatile players, Jonathan Spector might be the most extreme example. The 24-year-old Chicago-area native is a natural right back, but he has played on the left side for England's West Ham United this season, while for the Yanks he has split time between the right side and (in the team's last two European friendlies) the center.

When the U.S. meets the Netherlands in their A-squad exhibition here on Wednesday (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavisión), Spector will probably be the U.S.' starting right back, which means he'll face a tough challenge to slow down either Arjen Robben or Dirk Kuyt.

Spector's grandfather Art was the first player ever signed by the Boston Celtics, but Jonathan has become a pro in an entirely different pursuit. On Tuesday, he and I sat down at the U.S. team hotel and spoke about his versatility, the Dutch team, the U.S.-England World Cup game and what it's like to play for his West Ham manager, former Italian star Gianfranco Zola. Here is an edited version of the interview:

SI.com: You've played left back of late for West Ham. Last year you played right back for the U.S. mostly. How do you manage the transition?

Spector: I've played all along the back four. I've always been comfortable in any position, but there are some differences. At West Ham, I'm comfortable at left back. I'm actually right-footed but comfortable on my left side as well. Defensively, playing the two outside-back positions is the same. There's no difference positionally, and the 1-v-1 defending is the same. But going forward is a little bit different. I like to cut inside a little more on my right foot when I'm playing left back.

SI.com: One thing Bob Bradley mentioned last week is that from the right side you're able to send an early cross in sometimes, like you did to Clint Dempsey at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, that maybe isn't quite as readily there from the left side.

Spector: Probably not. I'll maybe cut in on my right and I can still send that ball in [from the left], but I'm not as likely to send that in on my left foot from there. As opposed to being an outswinger, it'll be an inswinger from the left side. That can be good or bad depending on if the striker is ready for it and where the defender is.

SI.com: Do you have a position preference?

Spector. Not entirely. My preference is to play. I'm happy to do that, and if the manager asks, my versatility has been well-known for a number of years now.

SI.com: There's a good chance you'll be going up against Arjen Robben or Dirk Kuyt on Wednesday. Could you take each guy and describe the dangers he represents?

Spector: I've played against both of them previously. Robben is in really good form for Bayern Munich right now, so it's a tough time to come up against him. He's obviously very quick, and he cuts inside quite a bit depending on where he's playing. From the right I've seen him cut inside a lot onto his left foot. He's got a really good strike on him. He's a quick and crafty player, so he likes to go at you 1-v-1.

I think Kuyt is a little different. He's got a really good work rate, so he's more of a nuisance than anything else. He's a tough person to play against because of how hard he works, both when they have the ball and when he's defending.

SI.com: I'm trying to rack my brain. Have you ever played left back for the U.S. senior team?

Spector: Yes. I played left back early in the Gold Cup [in 2007]. That may be the only time I've played left back for the senior team.

SI.com: So it hasn't been often?

Spector: No, it hasn't. It's been mostly at right back. The only reason I'm playing left back for my club team now is that there's been an injury [to Herita Ilunga]. The manager [Zola] has been happy with me, so he's been keeping me there.

SI.com: The U.S. meets England in the first game of the World Cup on June 12. You play in the Premiership. How excited are you for that game?

Spector: There's that side of it, that we'll be coming up against some guys who are on my club team: possibly Carlton Cole, Matt Upson, Robert Green, and then the guys I see week in, week out in England. But it's a much bigger game than just that, obviously. We kind of have somewhat of a history with England, and we'd love to win that group and to beat them in the process. But we know it'll be a tough game. They're a great side with world-class players. We're all looking forward to it. It's a really good test for us.

SI.com: When you've been on the left at West Ham, you've gone up against England right midfielder Aaron Lennon, right?

Spector: Yeah, twice this season. He's a good player. He's been injured for a while, so we'll see how he comes back. But he's a key for them. He's a great outlet and extremely quick, so he's a tough player to play against.

SI.com: If he is healthy, how do you try to defend a guy like that?

Spector: You try to close him down early and not give him a lot of time on the ball. They've got some good passers on the ball who can switch the play pretty quickly, so that makes it tough. You just want to try to not let him get a run on you, because there's not many guys who will be able to keep up with him.

SI.com: West Ham is in 13th place right now in the Premiership. How do you feel like your club season is going?

Spector: It's had its ups and downs. It's been good with the new owners coming in and providing a sense of stability. They brought in some strikers, which we were desperate for with the injuries that we had to Carlton Cole and [Guillermo] Franco, who are both back now. You can see with our goal-difference it hasn't been as if we've been out of many games. We're obviously in the minus, which is fair because we haven't had a great season. But if you look at the teams around us, we're at minus-8 and they're at minus-20, minus-25. We've been in every game but just haven't had results go our way.

I think we've turned a corner now. We lost to Man United last game, but the two before that [Hull City and Birmingham] were a couple wins. We're looking forward to the Bolton game [on Saturday]. It's a massive game for us, because after that we've got Chelsea and Arsenal away, which will be difficult to get anything from.

SI.com: You're still just 24, but you've been playing for the U.S. senior team since 2004. Do you feel like you're becoming a veteran on this U.S. team?

Spector: To an extent, I suppose. I come in and try to make the new players feel welcome, which the older players did for me when I came in. There's a great sense of team camaraderie here. That's probably one of our strengths. I can't say for sure what other national sides are like, but being in a number of different teams, I know the camaraderie within this group is a lot better than within most teams.

SI.com: What's it like playing for Gianfranco Zola, and how does it compare to playing for Bob Bradley?

Spector: They're slightly contrasting styles. Every manager is going to have that. With Zola, some of his strengths are that he was a fantastic player, everyone knows that. One of the things about him is that he's such a positive person, maybe overly positive at times. But I'd say that's a strength, because you don't get that very often, especially in England, where some of the managers can be very critical. So it's refreshing and nice to have someone like that around.

With Bob, one of his strengths is his attention to detail, and always getting the players on the same page as soon as we come in. Especially at times like this when there's one game and we're in camp for only a few days together. He does a really good job of that.


Check back for more updates from Amsterdam.

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