LONDON -- At a time when player conduct seems constantly to be under scrutiny, only the most eagle-eyed drivers would have spotted Jonathan Spector's SUV pulling up at West Ham's community facility beside the A13 flyover in east London on a gray Tuesday. The club hosted a coaching clinic for adults with learning disabilities and mental health issues, and the event rounded off with a kickabout with Spector and his manager, Avram Grant, before a Q&A in the clubhouse. Afterward Spector posed for photos and signed mementos for a queue that backed out the door. It only took an hour or so out of his afternoon, but he made the guests' day.
West Ham hasn't been featured in too many good news stories this season, having spent all but a few weeks in the relegation zone. Only Wigan, in last place, has won fewer matches and only West Brom and Blackpool (which is perilously perched in the last safe place) have conceded more goals. Grant's team has struggled with inconsistency: capping off a four-game unbeaten run with a 2-0 win over Wolves in January, the Hammers were then hammered 5-0 by Newcastle.
"It's been an up and down season," Spector said. "Unfortunately it's something I've been part of a couple of times since I've been here." In three of his five seasons at Upton Park, West Ham has been embroiled in the relegation battle; the club has gone from "too good to go down" to "too bad to stay up" and back again. "Without putting other teams down, I think we are a very good team and we need to play in this league," Spector said. "We've definitely got the players and the ability to get out of the situation we're in [18th on 32 points with six games to go]. People said Newcastle were too good to go down and they got relegated, so hopefully we've learned a lesson from them. Obviously the second half against Manchester United [when West Ham conceded four] wasn't our best display, but in the first half, as in the last three or four games, we played really well. I think that bodes well for the run-in."
An unexpected 4-0 victory over United in the League Cup in November was the first of several results that were supposed to herald the start of an upturn in West Ham's fortunes that hasn't yet truly materialized, but it has certainly bookmarked Spector's season, if not his career. With Mark Noble and Scott Parker both carrying injuries, Spector played a central midfield role and scored two goals, the second after a driving run through United's lines.
Not that we should have been shocked to find Spector deployed in a new role, or to find that he looked comfortable further forward; he was, after all, a striker until United's scouts spotted him filling in at right back, and he's played everywhere across the back four since coming to England as a 17-year-old. Being Mr. Adaptable has given him chances to get on to the pitch -- concerned about the depth of his squad, Grant had Spector train in the middle for about a month before the United game -- but now he'd like the chance to develop as a midfielder.
"My versatility has certainly helped me at times, and also it can be a hindrance, unfortunately," Spector said. It's the curse of the utility player to take one seat on the bench yet provide cover for multiple positions, and Spector has averaged 11 league starts a season. Though the January arrival of Gary O'Neil, Thomas Hitzlsperger's return to fitness and a minor hamstring injury of his own have since combined to put him back on the bench, Spector enjoyed a run in the team following his goal-scoring midfield debut.
"I would prefer to be considered a specialist in one position," he said. "Given the opportunity, I'd love the chance to play more in the midfield in future; I've really enjoyed being able to get forward a bit more. But each manager might have a different view on where I'm best suited for the team. I think I'd be the first one to be moved to another position just because of the experience I have in different roles, so whether or not that is on the cards for me, I don't know."
It will certainly be difficult to displace some of West Ham's most consistent performers, and Spector acknowledges that the competition for places in the USMNT midfield is just as intense -- especially now that Bolton's Stuart Holden looks like a credible automatic pick when fit. He won't be banging on Bob Bradley's door making demands. "It's a cliché," the Chicago Sockers graduate said, "but the team comes first."
Having helped the U.S. to the Confederations Cup final and through World Cup qualification as a right back, Spector had to be content watching from the sidelines in South Africa, having relinquished his spot to Steve Cherundolo. "Going to the World Cup was a fantastic experience. It was bittersweet, though, being there and not playing. It's difficult when you're not able to do something you love. The only way you can look at it, I suppose, is to try and turn it in to a positive to motivate you to make sure you're playing next time out."
Getting in to the defense will be tougher still after FC Nurnberg right back Timmy Chandler made an impressive debut against Argentina last month. At the start of a new World Cup cycle, these are tantalizing times for the U.S.: mainstays such as Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are still a couple of years off 30, there is young talent like Holden breaking through in European soccer, and even younger talent emerging in MLS -- 18-year-old New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo's start to life in the USMNT camp promises great things.
"I think the next four years will be interesting for us," Spector said, reflecting on the achievements of the last couple of years and the relative youth of the core of that squad. "We've got quite a few players in Europe now; it's had a big impact on producing better players from the States, and the success of our national team. We have good young players coming through.
"Each time we get together it's about trying to integrate them to what it's like to be part of the national team and what we want to achieve. We've got a lot to look forward to with the Gold Cup [this summer], Confederations Cup  and then the World Cup . We've been pretty steady at getting out of the group stages at the World Cup; now it's important for us to do a little bit more than that. I think we can do it."
What Spector's role will be remains as uncertain as ever -- in recent friendlies, he has started at right back (vs. Argentina) and come off the bench to join the midfield (vs. Paraguay). "I'd always prefer to be playing, no matter where it is," he said, breaking out in to that familiar broad grin.