Teenage pros kick-start US soccer

Santino Quaranta lives with his parents in Baltimore. He likes to sleep late, eat his grandmother's cooking, and hang out with his buddies after they return home from school.

"I don't really do any chores around the house," he confesses.

That's one life. In another, he's a dangerous striker for DC United, a crafty goal scorer who can blast shots with either foot. And at 16 years old, he happens to be America's youngest professional soccer player.

"Yeah, it's cool," he says just after a study session with his tutor. "All my friends are still in school, but I'm playing full-time professional sports. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Quaranta is one of several young American soccer players who are fueling hope that the United States can one day excel at the world's most popular sport. Never before has the US been so stocked with teenage talent, and never before has it been nurtured so carefully.

"We are very much ahead of where we've been in the past," says Bruce Arena, the US national coach, whose team is well on its way to qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. "It's a numbers game in developing players, and we certainly have some gems."

For sure, there is still a long way to go. Some young players will inevitably fizzle out; others may lose their passion. And, for every player like Quaranta in the US, there are hundreds just as good in Europe, South America, and Africa.

But, despite everything that could go wrong, it's hard for soccer enthusiasts not to smile when assessing American prospects.

In addition to Quaranta, Bobby Convey, a 17-year-old midfielder, already has one season under his belt playing for DC United of Major League Soccer (MLS). DeMarcus Beasley, 19, starts for the Chicago Fire of the MLS and is developing rapidly.

Perhaps the best of them is Landon Donovan, a flashy 19-year-old striker who just returned from Germany to play for the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS. Donovan, billed by some as the first great US goal scorer, was named most valuable player of the 1998 under-17 world championships, in which the US finished fourth.

"The consensus of people in Europe is that [US pro soccer] is not top-flight," Donovan said recently. "It's a lot better than people think, I can assure you that."

American soccer has been on a steady rise since the US hosted the World Cup in 1994. In 1996, MLS began play, cementing the US's position as a rising soccer power.

With newfound success, however, come questions. US Soccer Federation officials now have to turn potential into results. They also need to prevent the talent from spoiling.

One tricky issue has been kids who want to leave school early and become pros - something that has been a focus of concern in professional basketball, where more and more high school players are skipping college to go straight to the National Basketball Association.

MLS has signed five athletes straight out of high school in the past two years. But unlike the NBA, MLS has been able to exert more control over its players and so far has been able to avoid problems, league officials say.

For one thing, the league, rather than the individual teams, retains the players' contracts. MLS encourages young pros to participate in a program called Project 40, in which they receive the league's minimum base salary of $24,900, plus tuition money should they decide to go to college later. Those who have not finished high school, like Quaranta, are encouraged to employ tutors and complete a GED diploma.

MLS also benefits from the fact that many of its players come from well-to-do families, says Arena, the US national coach. And perhaps even more important, when the kids sign contracts, they don't become teenage millionaire celebrities overnight. Last year when DC United's Convey turned pro, for example, he was content to live in the house of Kevin Payne, the president of DC United.

"We haven't had any trouble with [the young players] at all," says MLS commissioner Don Garber. "If anything, they've been fun to work with."

At the same time, MLS and the US Soccer Federation don't want to be too strict. Otherwise they could lose young American players to the much deeper pockets of the European clubs, where professional contracts are awarded at even younger ages, where the season is more grueling, and where the coaches are less forgiving.

Frankie Hejduk, 26, plays for the German powerhouse Bayer Leverkusen (where Donovan also played), but has spend most of this year on the bench as a reserve. Back in the US on a tour with Leverkusen last week, he seemed homesick. "Yea, I'm frustrated," he says. "It's difficult when you don't get playing time."

When asked by coach Arena if he would be interested in joining the US national team in an upcoming exhibition game - an invitation most American players would jump at - Hejduk declined, perhaps showing some early signs of fatigue.

"I told [Arena] I needed a break," Hejduk says. "I need to spend some time with my family. There's more to life than soccer."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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