Sixteen years ago, long before he would presumably start in goal for Toronto in Sunday's MLS Cup final against Seattle, Quentin Westberg was on the U.S. team that played in the 2003 Under-17 World Cup.
“I remember almost everything from the youth national teams,” the French-American Westberg told SI.com this week. “They played such a huge part in building my identity. I really cherished that period.”
That U-17 World Cup in Finland marked the debut in a U.S. uniform of a 14-year-old global phenomenon named Freddy Adu. A year after writing Sports Illustrated’s first cover story on LeBron James, who was a high school junior at the time, I was fascinated by the idea that Adu was another LeBron taking off into the stratosphere. There was a book project here, I was convinced, and so I went to Finland and found myself with Adu and Westberg’s U.S. team in Lahti, a forest-surrounded town an hour north by train from Helsinki.
I remember a lot about that trip. The small Finnish stadium was at the bottom of a professional ski-jump facility. I ate reindeer for the first time (Fantastic). I sat on a bench with MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who called Adu one of the world’s most highly regarded young talents and three months later would sign Adu to a $500,000-a-year contract, making a 14-year-old the highest-paid player in MLS.
I watched Adu’s U.S. debut and saw him score a preposterous goal, slaloming through the South Korean defense, as part of his hat trick in a 6-1 victory.
And I ended up doing interviews with more than a dozen U.S. players, including Adu, about their hopes and dreams for their careers.
Those interviews are still on microcassette tapes in a storage unit in New York. Interviews with Jonathan Spector, Eddie Gaven, Danny Szetela, Jamie Watson, Corey Ashe, Memo González, Danny Szetela and others. Just to make sure, this week I checked to see if I had interviewed Westberg, but he was the backup goalkeeper, and so I hadn’t.
But here’s the remarkable thing: If you had told me in 2003 that Quentin Westberg would be the only member of that 20-player U.S. roster on a first-division pro team anywhere in 2019, I think my head would have exploded.
Yet here he is. Westberg, now 33 and playing in his first year in Toronto, won the starting goalkeeper job from Alex Bono a third of the way into the season and has been one of his team’s standouts during the playoffs as TFC has reached its third MLS final in four years. In the 11th minute of Toronto’s MLS semifinal at Atlanta, Westberg kept his team in the game by saving a penalty from Josef Martínez that would have made it 2-0 Atlanta.
Three minutes later, Nicolas Benezet equalized for Toronto, which went on to win 2-1 on a late strike from Nick DeLeon.
Going down 2-0 early “could have bteen a nightmare,” Westberg said. “I had an idea of what I wanted to do facing PKs, and then it was just him and I in the context, the moment, the time of the year, the importance of the game. I started feeling really great when we scored three minutes later.”
Westberg said he has fond memories of the U.S. players he competed with in that 2003 Under-17 World Cup. (He saw action in the U.S.’s group-stage loss to Spain and Cesc Fabregas.) But only one of those teammates, Szetela with the New York Cosmos, still plays professionally at any level. Spector, who would end up playing the most for the senior national team, announced his retirement in August. Gaven had 10 stellar MLS seasons but retired at age 27. Ashe last played in 2016 for Columbus.
And Adu? He didn’t become the LeBron of soccer. He last played in 2018 for the USL’s Las Vegas Lights, his 14th team in 15 years. Adu hasn’t officially retired from soccer, but lately he has been coaching a youth team in the Baltimore area.
Back in 2003, though, Westberg said, Adu “was that good. I had some elements of comparison. Right before the U-17s I was at Clairefontaine [the famous French federation academy] with Hatem ben Arfa, who was sort of the Freddy Adu for France. He did pretty well for himself, but probably not as well as his abilities were. But Freddy was so good with the U-17s. He was a difference-maker every minute of every game, to be truly honest. He had everything.
“I really wish he had the career he deserved, a fulfilling career.”
Westberg’s own career journey has been a rich one. Born in the Paris area to a French mother and American father, he spent three years (1999 to 2002) at the famous Clairefontaine academy that formed Thierry Henry, Kylian Mbappé and Blaise Matuidi. During Westberg’s time there, he was part of a popular Canal+ documentary show that followed the players there, including him, Ben Arfa and Abou Diaby, and they shot a follow-up documentary catching up with the players several years later.
During Westberg’s 14 senior seasons in France, he played in the first, second and third divisions, finishing with second-tier Auxerre earlier this year before coming to Toronto.
“I know the French leagues top to bottom,” he said. “It’s been great, but it’s been a grind. But I also know as of right now my identity technically, physically and mentally as a goalkeeper. I know my No. 1 strength is I never give up.”
Maybe that’s part of the reason why Westberg is the only player from the 2003 U.S. U-17s who’s still competing in a top-flight league. Maybe that’s part of why he decided to leave Europe for the first time in his club career and bring his family—his Portuguese wife, Ania; son Oyamo, 9; son Isaac, 7; and daughter, Livia, 3—to Toronto this season.
Westberg had no guarantees that he would win the starting job, but he didn’t give up, and he won it. Nor has he been surprised by the rise in intensity of his playoff-experienced Toronto team during the postseason.
“There’s a different playoff mentality here,” Westberg said. “I mean, the first 30 minutes against D.C. United, I was like, ‘Wow, this determination, that extra spark, that extra aggressiveness, that was floating in the air. It was the perfect environment matched to the intensity in the stadium, and at that moment I realized what they meant by playoff nights at BMO. Then we knew after that first game that we weren’t going to play a home game anymore, but it just kept building.”
Now there is just one more game, the final, in Seattle on Sunday. Westberg’s long personal story, longer than anyone might have expected in 2003, could have a new chapter.
“I see a full stadium,” he said. “I see a final. I see just a great game to play, a game anyone in the world would love to play. I wouldn’t want to be in anybody else’s shoes but ours, to head to Seattle and give everything we’ve got.”