Faces of First Kick: Santino Quaranta

Faces of First Kick: Santino Quaranta

WASHINGTON – Santino Quaranta’s narrative of personal redemption is well known to most MLS observers by now.

After a frightening descent into prescription drug addiction during the injury-plagued early stages of his pro career, the D.C. United veteran got sober over the 2007-08 offseason, hauling himself back to health and saving his life, family and livelihood in the process.

His might just rank as one of the most inspiring tales in the league’s 16-year history: a teenage prodigy turned prodigal son who found stability and returned to his original club to repay its trust. It seemed to reach its crescendo in July 2009, when Quaranta scored the game-winning goal for the US national team in a Gold Cup match against Honduras in front of his home fans at RFK Stadium.

“He’s an inspiration to the players, and all of us, from what he’s gone through and gotten himself back to,” said United head coach Ben Olsen, a longtime teammate and friend of Quaranta. “It’s a pretty amazing story and I think we’re all very, very happy that Tino has his life in a good place.”

[inline_node:330574]A happy ending straight out of a Hollywood studio, perhaps. But in the real world, life goes on, and the daily chores and challenges continue long after the cameras have turned off and the cheering fans have turned their attention elsewhere.

Offseason workouts must be labored through, team training sessions completed and playing time earned. For Quaranta, there’s also the daily commute between RFK and his family’s home in his native Baltimore, where chores and quality time with his two young children await at the end of every day, as well as regular visits to meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups.

“I live this way now. This is my life — working, training in the offseason,” he said in a recent interview with MLSsoccer.com. “The difference between me now and me back then is a lot. It’s just a routine – you work hard, take care of your body, and I get rewarded.

“I’ve grown up in 11 years now doing this, and really, these last four have been the most enjoyable, being back here and just working hard on a daily basis.”

No Guarantees

In the keenly competitive battle for playing time on United’s revamped 2011 squad, Quaranta has no guarantees, despite his constant presence in the starting XI over the past few seasons and diligent maintenance of the physical tools that made him the league’s youngest-ever player at 16 years old back in 2001.

“There’s going to be tremendous competition at virtually every spot on the field,” noted United president Kevin Payne earlier this month.

Reeling off long stretches of his team’s current roster, Payne underlined the wealth of attacking options at Olsen’s disposal as the Black-and-Red look to rebound from the worst season in club history.

“It’s not just Santino that’s going to be fighting for playing time. At the wide midfield positions we’ve got Chris Pontius, we’ve got Fred, we’ve got Santino, we’ve got Andy [Najar], we’ve got Branko Boskovic,” Payne said. “We’ve got four forwards in Charlie Davies – [and] I think Santino will get time at forward – Josh Wolff, Joseph Ngwenya.

[inline_node:330576]“He’s going to have to work very hard to get on the field for us, but I think that’s probably what he wants,” Payne added. “I doubt that he wants to be just handed an opportunity – I think he wants to be in a position where he’s earned his opportunity to play on a good team.”

Olsen calls Quaranta “one of my favorite guys, both as a teammate and as a friend,” but admits that he might spend more time on the bench this season.

“We’ve shuffled it up and we’re trying to figure out the best combo right now,” said Olsen. “There’s a lot of talent in there and Tino is one of the many talented guys we have. So it’s competitive right now, and where we end up, we’re not sure right now.”

That’s a vague and tough verdict to handle for restless, ambitious professional athletes. But three years on from his wrenching ordeal, Quaranta still maintains the measured spiritualism that helped him weather a three-month detoxification/rehabilitation stint in California and return home to implement its lessons.

“Just taking it day by day, man,” said Quaranta, who led United in minutes played last year. “You want to do well and score points, help the team win, but I don’t have too many personal goals. I just go out there and work hard, and the rest of that stuff will fall into place. Whatever is supposed to happen will, you know?”

He wore the captain’s armband as much as anyone last year, but Olsen has pointedly declined to name a captain thus far in 2011, preferring to cultivate leadership among “six or seven” players.

Quaranta, meanwhile, is not about to step into the background. But given his status as the heir apparent to the leadership mantle passed on from Olsen, scoring legend Jaime Moreno and other past United luminaries, Quaranta sounds surprisingly sanguine about his situation.

“I’m a competitor. I’m not going to keep a smile on my face, sitting on the bench and be all right, with the birds flying by. I want to win, I want to play, I want to help the team win,” he said. “But whatever the outcome is, if I’m doing my best then that’s what it is. If I don’t play one minute or I play every minute, if I know I’m doing my best, that’s all I can do.”

More Work To Do

He worked manfully to stop the bleeding during United’s nightmarish 2010 campaign, though it was not truly reflected in his statistics (two goals, two assists in 2,331 league minutes). His most natural position on the right flank has recently been occupied, with thrilling effectiveness, by 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar. A role on the opposite side is being contested by Designated Player Boskovic and Pontius, another versatile attacker who is eager to erase memories of his injury-marred 2010.

[inline_node:330579]But Quaranta remains in the reckoning and with several DC players expected to miss games due to international commitments this summer, he will surely have chances to make an impression. Conscious of his role as elder statesman, even at the modest age of 26, Quaranta is exceedingly unlikely to complain in any case.

“My approach is the same: You come out here, be a positive player, and you work hard every day,” he said. “We need to just make sure that these guys understand how important it is to play at RFK and play in front of these fans.”

And while that maturity and growth is far cry from his darker moments, those who know Quaranta best know there’s more to come in 2011 and beyond.

“He’s the type of guy people gravitate towards,” Olsen said. “He’s a loving guy, he’s a funny guy, he’s just a guy people really like and root for. I certainly root for him and hope [in] this next chapter, over the next couple of years, he becomes the player he needs to be.”

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