New Kids on the Pitch D.C.'s Santino Quaranta, an All-Star at 16, typifies the MLS youth movement

August 12, 2001

Thomas Quaranta is a big fan of The Godfather. So big that when
his son Thomas Jr. had his first child, Senior suggested that
the boy be called Santino, after James Caan's character in the
movie. Santino's parents couldn't have known it at the time, but
it was fitting that they named him for the Corleone known as
Sonny. A 16-year-old forward for D.C. United, Quaranta is the
youngest pro athlete in a major U.S. team sport. (The
similarities between Santino Quaranta and Santino Corleone end
with the nickname. Quaranta is no hothead, and last week, while
driving to lunch near United's offices in suburban Washington,
he navigated his Infiniti SUV, which he bought shortly after he
signed his contract, through two toll booths on Route 267
without getting gunned down.)

Quaranta (pronounced kwa-RON-tuh) grew up in Highlandtown, a
blue-collar neighborhood in southeast Baltimore that reminds his
coach, Thomas Rongen, of another mob family. "It's like something
out of The Sopranos," says Rongen. "In Amsterdam, I grew up in
the same sort of street environment, and I'll tell you, it makes
you grow up quick." Quaranta learned the game on a sandy pitch
behind a school across the street from his house, and he was
often the smallest and youngest player. That helped develop his
toughness as well as his flair, a combination that has served him
well in his rookie season in MLS. Through Sunday he had netted
five goals in 13 games, been named Player of the Week in mid-July
for scoring twice in a 3-1 win over New England and started the
July 28 All-Star Game.

The 6-foot, 165-pound Quaranta is the youngest member of a youth
movement that's sweeping the league. His teenage cohorts include
Landon Donovan, a 19-year-old striker for the San Jose
Earthquakes, who scored four goals in the All-Star Game; the
Chicago Fire's DaMarcus Beasley, another 19-year-old All-Star
starter and one of the league's most dangerous attacking
midfielders; Quaranta's 18-year-old teammate, midfielder Bobby
Convey, who was elected to start the All-Star Game but missed
the match because of a hernia; and Edward Johnson, a 17-year-old
striker who has given the Dallas Burn a lift off the bench.
"These kids are great for soccer," says D.C. goalkeeper Mike
Ammann, who's 30, "but it's also a negative because we're
putting undue pressure on them to come in so young and make a
difference."

Of course, the youngsters wouldn't be facing such high
expectations if they weren't good enough to foster them. Unlike
NBA teams, which feel compelled to troll for high schoolers, MLS
clubs don't sign players--the league does. MLS's brass is doing
its best to bring in only teens with a bona fide chance of
thriving on and off the field. "We have more control," says
deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. "Our teams are not falling all
over each other to get into the teenage market."

All the chosen ones possess an innate ability to attack, score
and, ultimately, put people in the stands. "It's something we
consciously look for," says Gazidis. "A player who has magic in
his feet, you can't teach that." Which is in part why D.C.--with
Quaranta, Convey and their magic feet--led MLS in road attendance
through Sunday, despite its 6-12-2 record.

By the time he was a sophomore at Archbishop Curley Prep,
Quaranta had caught the attention of scouts from the U.S. Soccer
Federation, which footed the bill to move him to Bradenton, Fla.,
where he trained with the rest of the national Under-17 team.
Quaranta and his 17 teammates went to school every morning,
practiced every afternoon and did their homework every evening,
all the while living at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy. Such
soccer academies are commonplace in England: Quaranta's favorite
player, striker Michael Owen, began his apprenticeship with
Liverpool at age 11 and was in that club's academy by the time he
was 14. What's more, it's hard to argue with the results. The
second American U-17 team to pass through the academy finished
fourth in the 1999 world championship, with Donovan winning the
Gold Ball as the tournament's MVP and Beasley receiving the
Silver Ball as the second leading scorer in the tournament.

Being a 15-year-old living away from home wasn't always easy for
Quaranta. "When you're there, you think, What am I doing here? I
want to be a normal teenager, go to school with my friends," he
says. "You wonder if what you are doing is worth it. It was for
me."

That was because he shone on the field: Quaranta had 23 goals and
22 assists in 51 games. He signed with MLS in January 2001, and
one month later United chose him with the eighth pick in the
draft. Being selected by D.C. has allowed Quaranta to live with
his family in Baltimore. MLS has tried to ensure suitable living
arrangements for other teens who have moved from home. When
Convey, a Philadelphian, joined the league in 2000, he lived with
Kevin Payne, United's CEO and general manager. Johnson, a rookie
from Palm Coast, Fla., lives with Burn assistant coach Brian
Haynes.

While living in familiar surroundings, Quaranta could focus on
the prospect of playing alongside men twice his age. "I was
worried," he says. "I didn't have a clue what to expect. How were
the guys going to treat me? Were they going to accept me?"
Quaranta got his answer after his first practice. As he stood at
his locker conducting an interview, Ammann took a coffee filter,
filled it with shaving cream and tossed the makeshift pie in his
face. Quaranta went along with the gag, which endeared him to the
veterans.

"He gravitates to the older guys because they want to teach him
the ropes, and he's eager to learn," says Rongen. On the road
Quaranta no longer rooms with Convey, recently sharing quarters
with Abdul Thompson Conteh, a 31-year-old forward from Sierra
Leone. In May the older guys went to bat for Quaranta when he
wanted to go to his girlfriend's junior prom, which was scheduled
the night before a road game. After defender Eddie Pope explained
the significance of that night for 16-year-old American boys,
Rongen gave Quaranta the go-ahead. Quaranta had a blast, caught a
plane at nine the next morning, reached Columbus, Ohio, in time
for the pregame meal and scored his first MLS goal.

Although Quaranta's transition has been seemingly smooth, Rongen
can't help but wait for the other boot to drop. "We'll ruin him
in two years," he says with a chuckle. "When they're young,
they're naive, and when they're naive, they're honest, and when
they're honest, they just play because they love the game. I'm
sure we'll screw him up somehow. He comes in with a smile on his
face every day--win, lose or draw--because it hasn't dawned on him
that this is his job. You wish that innocence could stay with
those players, but we would be fools to think it will."

For now, though, Quaranta is only a kid, well-adjusted but
blissfully ignorant of the significance of his accomplishments.
His typical day entails sleeping as late as possible, going to
practice, seeing his tutor, getting back to Baltimore around
supper time and hanging out with friends at night. (Although he
doesn't attend classes, Quaranta is on pace to earn his diploma
from Archbishop Curley next year, and Project-40, a development
program funded by MLS, Nike and U.S. Soccer, will give him
$37,500 toward his education.) He's in no hurry to grow up, and
why should he be? He earns between $25,000 and $50,000, dines on
home-cooked meals and has no chores to speak of other than to set
up and score goals.

His teammates aren't too keen to see Quaranta age quickly,
either. "He adds a lot of excitement because he's so
enthusiastic," says Ammann. "It helps us remember our youth.
It's a great experience for him--and for us older guys."

COLOR PHOTO: RICH SCHULTZ/AP COLOR PHOTO: JEFF GROSS/ALLSPORT San Jose's Donovan (10) and Chicago's Beasley starred for the U.S. Under-17 team, and Convey (15) is D.C.'s second teenage force. COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM GARROW II/MLS/ALLSPORT [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: NICK WASS/ALLSPORT [See caption above]

"The older guys want to teach Santino (25) the ropes," says
Rongen, "and he's eager to learn."

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