At 16 years of age, Santino Quaranta was a professional soccer player. He was a father at 18, a CONCACAF Gold Cup champion at 21 and in the throes of addiction a year later, when D.C. United lost patience and shipped him to the L.A. Galaxy.
It started with painkillers, got worse from there and left Quaranta contemplating suicide before he gathered his strength and sought treatment in the fall of 2007. At 23, he was in rehab. At 24, he was back with United and the U.S. national team and at 27, he retired after 11 MLS seasons.
Quaranta was surplus in D.C., wary of his recent struggles with concussions and unwilling to uproot a young family in search of one more MLS paycheck. The clean and sober father of two called it quits. He’d lived his wildest dreams and nightmares -- risen, fallen and risen again – all before some move out of their parents’ house.
Quaranta is barely kidding when he says, “I feel like I’m 50.”
Now a wise and cultured 29, he’s in position to be a unique sort of mentor. The Baltimore native already has made an impact with the local youth. Pipeline Soccer Club, which he launched three years ago along with long-time friend Sean Rush, has 45 teams. Soon, he’ll get a crack at the foundation of the American soccer pyramid. This week, Quaranta will be named head coach of the Baltimore Bohemians. It is one of the more visible clubs in the USL Premier Development League and may have professional aims of its own.
“When they announce it, it’s going to be interesting to see the feedback. If you ask around Baltimore, there would be 150 guys who want this job,” Quaranta told SI.com. “It’s going to take off. It’s going to take on a whole new meaning in the area. There’s going to be some pressure on myself, but these kids are good players. The group we’re going to put together next year, there’s going to be kids who go into MLS … I don’t ask much from players. I just want them to have respect for their teammates, work their asses off and take the opportunity and run with it. I know a lot of different guys around the league that I can push these players on if they deserve it. That’s the goal, to get these guys to the next level.”
Quaranta, of course, did reach the next level. That’s part of what made him an attractive candidate when brothers Joe and Jim Tirabassi, who run the Bohemians, started their coaching search. Baltimore played its first two PDL seasons under local youth soccer titan Steve Nichols, who opted to switch gears and take over at Loyola University this year.
Named after National Bohemian beer -- which was first brewed in Baltimore in the 1880s and still has a presence there thanks to the huge Mr. Boh sign shining from the roof of the National Brewing Co. building -- the club plays in distinctive black and yellow jerseys patterned after the city flag. It boasts one of the more recognizable brands in the 64-team PDL, a largely amateur league that represents the first step toward professionalism for many U.S. players. The Bohs also have enjoyed a bit of success on the field. They made the playoffs last season, losing just one regular season game, and already have had five players signed or drafted by an MLS or NASL team.
The club’s majority partner is Louis Angelos, son of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. There’s hope in the back of many minds throughout the Charm City soccer community that the Angelos might have ambitions beyond the PDL. Perhaps more so than anyone else in this town of deep roots and close ties, Quaranta knows what it takes.
“When we started our search of a new coach, we wanted someone who had reached the top of the game in this country and Santino has done that,” Joe Tirabassi said. “He’s represented the U.S. He’s played in Major League Soccer and we know he’s going to be able share the wisdom he’s gained along the way to this new generation of players.”
But that sort of wisdom is only the beginning. The Bohemians job, and his work with the city’s youth, also has given Quaranta the chance to help players grow as people. He’s living proof that touch and tactics are only part of the equation. The intangibles are just as crucial.
That’s why he named his youth club Pipeline. Quaranta wanted to provide a place where kids could learn what really was needed to reach the next level. When a Bohemians player confronts adversity, frustration, distraction or temptation, Quaranta will provide counsel. That was more important to the Tirabassi brothers than questions that could arise about Quaranta’s past.
“You hear a lot of stories about players reaching the highest level of their sport and then crashing. But you don’t hear very many stories about players climbing out of the hole. To do that takes a strength that many people don’t have. To see that in someone like Santino is incredibly inspiring,” Joe Tirabassi said.
Quaranta said he typically attends multiple 12-step meetings a week. He understands that he’ll have to continue to prove himself. But he’s convinced that his years as a student of the game under the likes of Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, his connections throughout MLS and his progress as a person will make the difference as he begins his coaching career.
“It’s not hard to look down the line and find somebody that’s struggling, whether it’s alcoholism or addiction. You know it’s a short link. Everybody knows somebody that struggles,” he said. “This is a second-chance country and when you come back, by your actions you show people, ‘This is who I am.’ People are going to respect that. Nobody talks about what I used to do anymore. Everybody asks about what I’m doing now."