Some midfielders are born to play the position. Barcelona and Spain’s Ballon D’or winner Xavi comes to mind. There’s plenty to say about a player like Xavi, who was seemingly handed the keys to the middle of the pitch at birth. But that’s not a topic for me to tackle, not today anyway. No, today we’re going to look at a player who took a decidedly more circuitous route to the middle of the park. Today we’re going to look at a player who played every position save goalkeeper on his way to where he is now. Today we’re going to look at an American who was playing his way into involuntary international retirement before setting the world on fire with a signature performance against England’s only undefeated club. Yes, today it’s time to answer the millions of Twitter users who were left asking themselves and their friends, “What the hell does #spector mean?”
The following is part cautionary tale, part outrageous fortune, and hopefully, more prelude than anything else.
Our hero, Jonathan Spector, is a 24 year old Chicagoan that started his life in soccer as a galloping forward for his local club teams and in the United States youth system. His performance for the States in 2003 Milk Cup would change a couple of those designations. The young Yanks had an injury crisis in defense, and as mentioned above, Jon could gallop. The forward was deployed as a defender for his country in the Elite bracket (in which national team’s youth squads compete), and was noticed by a scout for the tournament’s U-16 club winners, Manchester United. Fergie and the Mancs subsequently came calling, so a 17 year old Spector gladly swapped the wind in Chicago for the rain in jolly old England.
It turns out Sir Alex wasn’t interested in Jon’s potentially goal scoring qualities, and the emergency defender was flung into the role of English Premier League fullback. He played more reserve games for Man U than he did for the first team, but that’s still a steep learning curve for a forward who happens to possess a defensive instinct here and there. So Spec did the only thing he could do; he put his head down, did the work, and did the best he could. Apparently players who come complaining to this Ferguson character have a low success rate, who knew.
A squad player at best during his time at Old Trafford, our hero was seemingly saved by a loan move to Alan Curbishley’s Charlton Athletic. The still newly minted “defender” impressed the manager enough win a move to London when the Chalrton man took the reins at West Ham United in 2006. The next four years would hit Spector with a series of highs and lows, and more exciting new positions to explore. He would never shake the “squad player” label, but saw time at right back, left back, center half, and even defensive mid (emphasis on defensive) during some of West Ham’s chronic injury crises. The low point for Spector came last year, when with all the team’s viable left back’s on the shelf, Jon was forced to play off his wrong foot against the blazing fast right wingers of the Premier League. Despite giving an American sized effort all season long, Spector was still skinned by the likes of Aaron Lennon and Antonio Valencia, and worse still, scapegoated by the fans.
Things weren’t all bad for Jonny from 2006 to 2010 though. Remember the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa? An injury to right back Steven Cherundolo forced Spector into the starting XI, where he took the opportunity to shut down Italy’s left wing attack and play solid defense throughout the tourney. He even got to flash some of the long dormant quality in his right foot as he provided three inch perfect crosses that turned into Clint Dempsey goals. But with the USMNT, as with West Ham United, inconsistency plagued Spector’s adventures at fullback. In notable recent performances for the Yanks the defender has alternatingly looked lost while defending, and gambled too much by going on forward runs with no cover. Sounds about as schizophrenic as the whole of the American defense during this past World Cup cycle right?
So everyone was rightfully ready to close the book on Spector, in London and in the States, when a wondrous and unexpected thing happened at Upton Park last Tuesday. West Ham’s entire cast of first and second string center mids was injured (that’s certainly not the unexpected part), leaving only third choice defensive midfielder Radoslav Kovac to play alone in the middle of the park against the undefeated Manchester United, Spector’s old employer. Having trained a couple times as a midfielder in the face of the injury bug that was in the process of biting the team, Jon manned up and gave it a go at the central midfield spot tasked with facilitating the attack. And go he did. As you’ve probably heard or seen, #spector was a menace, scoring the match’s first three goals, with only one of them being flagged offside, and becoming a top five trending topic on Twitter, his life’s dream no doubt. West Ham smacked the Red Devils four to nil that night, and Jonathan Spector didn’t just play the same position as the Hammers’ best player that day, he looked like West Ham hero Scott Parker in the performance. Just as importantly, Spector legitimized his dominance against his former club by playing much the same against a more defensively stout Sunderland squad last weekend. Jon partnered a newly healthy Scott Parker in that match, and definitively outplayed the savior of East London. The Hammers took a one-nil loss, but the American created the best scoring chance for the away side, receiving a pass, turning his defender, and delivering a low and hard shot from just outside the box that keeper Craig Gordon had to use some Stadium of Light magic to save.
So where did this come from? Why is Jon Spector playing like Scotty Phranchise all of a sudden? Is he just cashing in on all those chances he had to sit on the substitutes’ bench and watch Parker work? Or has his positional cross training been preparing him for this role all along? Maybe fullback taught him to tackle, be calm on the ball, and make good passes. Maybe he now finally has license to roam forward again, so his forgotten forward skill set is back in play. I can’t say for sure, and Spector himself may even be a little confused, but right now he’s somewhat inexplicably finding the form of his life, at a position he first played competitively just over a week ago.
Where does the surging Chicagoan go from here? Who knows. If his track record has taught us anything, it’s that this young man tends to respond in a big way when forced into the most unfamiliar roles (except for left back of course, please no left back). History also speaks to his inconsistency as a player, so USMNT coach Bob Bradley won’t be making any tough phone call to Ricardo Clark just yet, but if Spector can continue to play well at West Ham, that call may be on the horizon. While the new midfielder’s ascent can’t be quantified in terms of US Soccer just yet, it’s already been a great boon to West Ham United, and a prickly thorn in the side of Cologne. The German club was all set to buy Spector the fullback on the cheap in January. They may still get the chance to bid on the American, but a midseason midfield revelation will assure that there’s nothing cheap about Jon Spector.
Jon Levy is co-founder and associate editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TYAC_Jon.