Soccer America
Tuesday September 1st, 2009

Jonathan Spector laughs when asked about the father of one of his close friends, who also happens to coach the U.S. national team.

"No, I don't think about it too much," says Spector, a childhood friend and now teammate of Michael Bradley, son of the U.S. national-team coach Bob Bradley. "Everything is done very professionally, from the managerial standpoint and the coaching side.

"Obviously, I know Michael pretty well. We grew up playing together and he's a year younger and we were both with the [Chicago] Sockers and went to the same high school. We were always around each other and Bob was obviously there when I trained a few times with the Fire when I was at the residency program before I went to Manchester United.

"So I know the family pretty well, but from the soccer side, everything is extremely professional. That doesn't have any impact on things when I'm with the team."

Because of injuries and occasional club conflicts, Spector hasn't been with the U.S. national teams nearly as much as he could have been since making his debut for the senior team at age 18 in a November 2004 World Cup qualifier against Jamaica. He played only two games in '05, sat out '06 entirely (including the World Cup) and played just 19 minutes last year.

The list of major injuries includes a dislocated right shoulder that knocked him off the '06 World Cup roster, surgery for a torn labrum and bone spur last June that eliminated the Olympics from his itinerary and two concussions in less than two years.

The first leveled him 17 minutes into the '07 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, played at Soldier Field just a few miles from his hometown of Arlington Heights, Ill.; the second occurred last April while playing for West Ham, when a head-to-head collision left him gagging for breath and required the team's medical staff to insert a tube to force air past his swallowed tongue.

He didn't get back into the West Ham lineup until late December, and suffered the concussion against Sunderland in his seventh game. He did recover in time to play the last two matches of the Premier League season, which brought him back into contention for national-team duty. With several strong showings at the Confederations Cup playing right back in place of the injured Steve Cherundolo, Spector has added depth to that spot as well as the other defender slots. He also set up two goals for Clint Dempsey at the Confederations Cup with serves from the right flank.

Last year, he'd flown from England to Tennessee to play in a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinal -- a 3-0 victory over Canada -- that clinched a spot in the final competition, but the surgery in June and recovery process forced him back to the sidelines for nearly six months. During the surgery, the labrum was repaired, and bone was shaved from his right hip.

"He's a player who hasn't had the best luck with staying healthy," says Bob Bradley. "But when he's been with us, he's shown he's a player who has some important qualities."

Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Mike Magee, a former teammate with the Sockers and U-17s, is less ambiguous.

"He was just such a freak athletically, a tough kid, a competitor," says Magee. "You always know when a player is special. I always thought he was going to be a forward with the national team. To make it to Manchester United as a defender takes a lot and shows what a competitor he is.

"I know we played a lot together when we were younger. I used to play a lot in the midfield and we played a year of indoor soccer, and he was such a beast. On a small field and everyone running around, he was a head bigger than anyone else. He definitely stood out to me."

While coaching the Fire, Bradley encouraged his son, Spector, Magee and other young players to train with the professional team during its preseason trips to Florida, or if the players were home in Chicago on their breaks from residency camps. In such testing environments, players learn how the pros do things, and how they can survive.

"From an individual, or maybe it's a selfish standpoint, I always wanted to play up a year or two years, whatever it might be, just because it was such a good experience and it was so much harder, especially at a young age," says Spector, who in his early teens would attend sessions to watch the likes of Peter Nowak, Chris Armas and Ante Razov. "You can understand why coaches want to keep their teams together, but playing with older players helped me develop as a player quite a bit."

Magee, as well as both Bradleys and Spector, give their former club and its coaches much of the credit for their development and success.

"Our club team, the Chicago Sockers, is an incredible club," Magee says. "There are always places to play for younger guys. They always had extra practices and for guys like us they'd always let us train with older age groups. For me personally, that's definitely why I'm here, and I think Jonathan would say the same thing.

"[Sockers coach] David Richardson introduced me to soccer and never let me get away with anything. At a young age, you can get away with a lot of things and still be one of the better players on the field. For me and Jonathan and Michael, he saw the bigger picture. He'd make us play up a couple of age groups and we kind of got the s--- kicked out of us. We're thankful for it now, but David and Bret Hall, who also works over there, really got on us."

Prior to the wave of setbacks, Spector had steadily climbed the ziggurat of age levels while launching his pro career with Manchester United after leaving the residency program. He played for the U.S. U-17s in Finland at the '03 world championships, and with the U-20s in the Netherlands at the '05 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Until a trip to Northern Ireland with the U-17s in '02, he'd played forward, but then head coach John Ellinger convinced him his international future would be as a defender. Since then, he's played just about everywhere along the back line, and occasionally as a defensive midfielder, during his club career.

He signed with Manchester United in '04, but played only three first-team games prior to being sold to West Ham for around $900,000 in '06. He'd played 24 games (in all competitions) on loan with Charlton during his second season, and despite the injuries since joining West Ham has played in 60 Premier League games for the Hammers.

"I played the majority of my games while I was on loan at Charlton at left back, and played a couple for West Ham as well," says Spector. "I'm comfortable on the left but I prefer to play on the right. Bob watches the games and is aware I can play there if need be, but I think he's planning to keep me at right back because that's where he needs me for the team.

"I'm comfortable anywhere along the back or even as a defensive midfielder as well. That versatility has helped me get quite a few games when we've had injuries or absences for other reasons. But it's nice to get set at one position and I've enjoyed playing right back and that could be where my future is both for my club team and the national team."

His future at West Ham has been secured by a new three-year contract, which pays him a reported annual salary of $800,000 and allows him to live in the fashionable London district of Canary Wharf. He and the club had agreed verbally to a new deal last year and worried about how being sidelined would affect his status, but by the time Gianfranco Zola had taken over as manager last September, his concerns had been addressed.

"Nothing had been signed," recalls Spector. "We had agreed in principle, which doesn't always mean a whole lot, but at that club, it does mean something. I was very appreciative of how they handled everything. They told me that once I was healthy and playing, the terms that were agreed to would be in effect."

You can count Spector among the pro-Zola crowd. The Italian's poise and enthusiasm during his days across town playing for Chelsea endeared him to the fans of that club, but a rocky start at Upton Park in his first managerial job -- five losses in his first six games -- left the Hammers in the relegation zone.

"He's an extremely positive person," says Spector of Zola, named to replace Alan Curbishley nearly a year ago. "He instills confidence in the players and that's made a big difference. He was very important to the success the team had last season."

By April, West Ham had pushed close to a European spot in the standings; that quest failed, yet the Hammers' final placing of ninth had seemed remote at Christmas. Eight wins and six ties in their final 20 games was enough to ease them home in the middle of the standings.

While competition at right back from Cherundolo and Frankie Hedjuk may preclude regular starts for the national team, Spector knows that only steady duty for West Ham can confirm his place in the World Cup squad of 23. His size (6-feet, 180 pounds) is more suited to the corner than to the middle, though he and Jay DeMerit are about the same dimensions, and his confidence going forward adds to his value for both West Ham and the U.S.

"He certainly encourages the outside backs to get forward and as I said it's a very attacking style," Spector says of Zola. "He definitely wants the outside backs to get involved in the attack."

Of the crosses that Dempsey tucked into the net with his head and right foot, Spector comments, "Clint's a creative and talented player. When we did talk, it was more about getting the ball to him on my side of the field, not crossing it to him, but he's also really good in the air and good at finishing. He found himself in good positions, I was able to get him the ball, and he finished them both really well. He did the hard part."

Spector, 23, hopes only the hard part for him going forward will be playing well. The six U.S. games he's played so far in '09 represent one-third of the total he's been able to accumulate in the past five years.

"I've had some difficulty with injuries but I'd like to think that's all behind me now," says Spector. "I think I've found regular places with both my club team and the national team. I'm looking forward to the future."

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine. Click here for a free three-month subscription.

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