At first glance, Santino Quaranta looks like a typical 20-year-old about to return to college after a long summer break. He's got the requisite amount of body ink scattered around his 6-foot-1 frame, a barely-visible nose ring and a confident grin that would allow him to blend in on most any campus across the country.
However, Quaranta is hardly your average wide-eyed kid. That could be said of him back in 2001 when he burst onto the U.S. soccer scene as a 16-year-old star for D.C. United. That was back when he was living with his grandmother in Baltimore and worried a lot more about fitting in with his much-older teammates off the field than he did matching skills with them on it.
Fast forward to the present and you'll find a young man who has already experienced the type of trials and tribulations of a hardened veteran. Over the last four years, Quaranta has had to fight through a series of injuries, a case of burnout, a series of DNPs as a reserve player, being written off by his own fans after he didn't live up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon him as a rookie and the sleepless nights of a young father after having a baby girl, Olivia Naomi, two years ago.
As he stands here at Trinity College just two days before dressing for his first World Cup qualifying match with the U.S. national team, the D.C. United standout is the youngest player in camp. Yet, he's far from being green or wet behind the ears.
"This is my fifth year in MLS, and that's a pretty long time," said Quaranta, who played in three of the USA's six matches in the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup. "I don't feel like the normal kid my age, but I do feel young all over again. I feel rejuvenated, like I'm back. I feel very confident right now."
As he should.
Gone are the lingering effects from tearing the adductor muscle in the groin area that allowed him to play in a mere three matches in the regular season and playoffs combined during D.C. United's MLS Cup-winning season last year. Same goes for the pain in his knee that kept him out for half of the 2003 season and resulted in arthroscopic surgery at the end of the year.
Finally healthy coming into the 2005 campaign, Quaranta has been a mainstay for Peter Nowak's side, having totaled three goals and four assists in 13 games played. The combination of speed, size, power and technical ability that was so evident as a teenager is back, making him one of the rising stars in U.S. soccer.
"It's taken a lot of hard work," he said. "My family has stood by me. They knew what I was capable of. I knew it'd be a long road, but once I got over my injuries and the initial hump, it's gone smoothly. Getting into preseason healthy was a key. And it's been smooth sailing from there."
Originally, Quaranta was not called in for the Gold Cup when the roster was announced in mid-June. But once Eddie Johnson was unable to play due to a turf toe injury, U.S. assistant coach Curt Onalfo urged Bruce Arena to give the young attacking talent a chance.
A resident of nearby Fairfax, Va., as well as a father of one of Quaranta's teammates at D.C. United, Arena sees his former club play in person more than any team in MLS. He saw enough promise in his play during the first half of the season to bring him in not only for the Gold Cup, but also for the qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago on Wednesday night.
"He's always been a talented player," said Arena. "He's gone through a number of injuries over the past three years of his career. He's a player now that over the last two to three months of his MLS season has played on a regular basis. He's a player that has very good attacking qualities. He's got confidence now. He's a little unique for our group of players since he can face players and go by them, which is something you always want."
Arena has urged Quaranta to take his chances, which was evident in the Gold Cup Final against Panama when he gave the U.S. a lift as a right-sided midfielder in the second half of a hot and humid day by running at the Panamanian defense and serving in several quality balls. The U.S. manager also has to like the versatility that the 20-year-old has already shown at a young age, considering he has played on both flanks, as a withdrawn forward and as a target striker up top.
"I'll play wherever I am needed, really," he said. "I do like being out wide since I can go forward a little bit more and have some space."
After coming up as a striker, Quaranta has had to learn other positions due to the crowded situation with his club team. When everyone is healthy, Nowak has Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian and Freddy Adu available as strikers. So learning to play out wide has given him additional chances to see the field.
But more than that, what's been crucial in Quaranta's development during the past six months has been the way he views the game. It became a job to him for awhile. It took a kick in the butt from a no-nonsense coach like Nowak for him to wake up a bit and realize how much he loves the game of soccer enough to rededicate himself all over again.
"Peter's intensity is something I've never had before in a coach," he said. "He's been magnificent to me. He pushes me more than I've ever been pushed before. I think that's what got me going and playing the way I know I'm capable of. Everyone at D.C. has been very patient with me. So it's nice to play well for them and have it all pay off."
Barring a monumental collapse over the next five qualifiers, the U.S. will qualify for the World Cup next summer. That gives Quaranta about eight months to make his mark before Arena names his roster to go to Germany. Now that he's got his first caps out of the way, Quaranta is hoping to see the field in a qualifier when the pressure is much greater than it was in the Gold Cup.
"It's an honor and a privilege to be here right now," he said. "It's a total different feel here than it was (for the Gold Cup). There are different guys here and much more is at stake. It's an awesome environment to be in. I've fought hard and been through a lot just to be back here, so this is quite a thrill."
Arena has never been one to look at a player's age to consider how they can aid his team. So whether Quaranta comes off the bench against the Soca Warriors or not, he'll certainly be a player that the U.S. manager will continue to monitor in MLS.
"We hope that he is able to continue to grow as a player," said Arena. "If his confidence to play at this level grows, it'll be interesting to see. If he's able to do that, it'll certainly help us."
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs Wednesdays on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.