DAVID SMITH - Thursday, June 2, 2011
In the build up to the 2011 Gold Cup, seven-year USA veteran Jonathan Spector identifies the swell of players ready to compete on the international level as a growing strength of the US national team.
Still a relatively young 25 years old, Spector's seven-year association with the senior national team has allowed him to experience first-hand the gradual evolution of squad around him.
While much of the personnel has changed during his tenure, he has noticed a consistent expansion and improvement of the players which are of a quality to contribute to the Stars and Stripes.
"I think one of the things you notice with the US team is the strength and depth we have now," Spector told YA. "I'm not sure we had that in years past."
"We have more and more talented players with the ability to step up to the international level," he continues, "so that's certainly something that has benefited us, particularly in competitions like this when you might need to use all 23 players."
Even though the West Ham United player is by no means a new face to the squad, he has found himself coming into the current camp in the unique position of adding to this depth, having broken out of his usual role as a defender to blossom in the midfield during recent months for his London-based club.
"It was the coach that thought it would be a good position for me," he points out of former Hammers head coach Avram Grant's decision to test the normally defensive player in the central midfield. "He put some faith in me to play there even though I'm not the most experienced in that position by any means, but it was a great opportunity for me."
"I don't want to say it was a rebirth, but It was almost a birth in a new position for me."
This has naturally raised the question of whether his strong showings in a more advanced position at the club level will be a catalyst for a similar shifting of roles for the national team. While clearly motivated to throw his hat into the ring and try to compete in what is a well-stocked position for the US, Spector does recognize that his positional flexibility could yet see him best used in the defense.
"It's more of a question for [coach Bradley] to answer," he concedes of his prospects in the midfield for the upcoming national team games. "He'll do what he thinks is best for the team and he knows that I'll certainly be willing to [...] accommodate that."
"I've really enjoyed playing in the midfield, but due to my versatility, my best position will be where it fits in with that particular team," he surmises of his role, "so my best position will vary depending on where I am, who I'm with and who I'm surrounded by."
"Personally I'd like to get the opportunity to play [in the midfield]," the Illinois native admits, "but it's just an honor to be a part of the group."
This versatility has seen the former Manchester United product play a number of games over the years at the always-problematic left back position, but like many of the other players who have cycled through that side of the defense, his preference lies elsewhere on the field.
"It's not my favorite position by any means," he concedes. "If I'm asked to play there I'll be more than willing to do so, but if you're asking for my first choice [where to play], that certainly wouldn't be my first position."
Like a number of the players with whom he will spend the next weeks, Spector's club situation is largely up in the air. With West Ham having suffered relegation to England's second tier and his contract with the team expiring, he will be forced to decide in the near future whether to stick it out with the London club or make a move elsewhere in search of consistent playing time.
"I don't know yet," he confesses of his post-summer plans. "The club offered me a new contract so at this point I'm just weighing my options."
"[West Ham] is a fantastic club and London is a great city but I'm not there for the city, I'm there for soccer. At this stage in my career it's important to go somewhere where I'm going to play and get a good opportunity."
In addition to the the offer on the table from the Hammers, speculation is rife as to where he could call home in the upcoming season, with a move onto the continent to Germany's Hannover 96 being one of the more intriguing suggestions.
"I'm certainly open to [moving to another country], and at this point I'm not ruling anything out," he asserts. "I just want to see what my options are and take it from there. If it's a better opportunity for me in Germany than in England then it's something I'll certainly take up."
This uncertainty surrounding his club situation is taking a temporary back seat to the more immediate task of helping the US take home a fourth Gold Cup title, which he knows will give them a leg up in their long-term preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
"Right now my focus is on what's happening with the national team," Spector professes. "We'd love to repeat the process we went through last cycle in terms of winning the Gold Cup, going to the Confederations Cup and having that experience going into the World Cup."
Barring an entirely unexpected turn of events, the finale of the tournament will likely pit Spector and his teammates against their Mexican arch-enemies for a third straight time.
"It's certainly a pretty fierce rivalry," he recognizes of the always intense games between the two teams, continuing "I think the Mexican fans hate us more than vice versa just from our experience of going down there [...], but it's something we relish and we like the opportunity to play against them."
The 2009 Gold Cup final saw the US end their long streak of not losing to Mexico on home soil end in a humiliating 5-0 defeat, and the meeting between the teams one month later in Mexico City for World Cup qualifying also ended in a 2-1 win for the hosts. Taking a two-game losing streak against their rivals into the tournament, with the last victory coming more than two years ago, Spector and his teammates are looking forward to the opportunity to once again gain the upper hand in the continued rivalry.
"They are a good team, we know that," he concedes, confidently concluding "we certainly would like to face them at a certain point [in the Gold Cup] and beat them."