Following the USWNT triumph in the final on the weekend, and building up to the start of the Premier League season, AmericanGambler.com spoke to former USA international and Manchester United fullback, Jonathan Spector.
Spector gave a number of very carefully sculpted ideas on how to reduce the gender pay gap in football and why he supports Megan Rapinoe in speaking her mind about avoiding a trip to The White House.
Spector also spoke about joining United at the same time as a young and frustrating Cristiano Ronaldo, and about one individual who received the infamous hairdryer treatment from Sir Alex Ferguson.
What does England need to do to achieve the level that the USA women’s team have?
I think the US women had a bit of a headstart with it all with funding and in terms of the sheer number of women that play the game from a young age growing up in the states. Even with boys, it’s the same thing; everyone plays soccer growing up in the United States and it’s only once they get older that they then specialize in another sport, whether it’s American Football, Basketball or Baseball. Whereas with the women, it seems that the numbers stay pretty steady throughout, growing up and then into later stages.
It seems like there’s much more opportunity here for women in the professional league, but I think the English team did really well and it was one of the best games that I saw. I watched a number of them and I thought England were a little bit unlucky, the offside call was so close on the goal and its moments like those that change the game. But it’s brilliant to see how much recognition the women’s game is getting, both in the US and in England. Phil Neville, a former teammate of mine, is the manager over there and they definitely have a good person leading that team, who understands the game and learned from arguably the best manager in the world.
How do the US men’s national team breed the same success that the women’s game has seen?
Since the US men didn’t qualify for the last World Cup, there have been a lot of changes that have taken place. For example, it’s the first time that the men have hired a general manager, which would be akin to a Technical Director. He’s in charge of hiring coaches and football operations, so now is the first time that we have someone like a general manager who played at the highest level, who played at the World Cup for the USA, played professionally in the US and in Europe, so he’s someone who understands the global game for sure.
He also really understands the footballing side of things, where previously it was the president or vice president who made those footballing decisions, so I think this is a step in the right direction to have a football man or woman making those decisions, which I think is pretty crucial. There’s a big push on the development of young talent, I think Christian Pulisic who a lot of English fans will get to know pretty quickly, and another player Weston McKennie is only 20 and playing at Schalke. So there are some exciting talents coming through and it’s obviously the job of some of the more experienced players to help them understand what it is for them to be a player for the US national team.
We have seen Pulisic rise through the ranks, and earned a real name for himself. How good is he, and what can Chelsea expect from him this season?
At 20 years of age, he’s a very, very good player. Incredibly talented, he’s got a great first touch and he just glides pasty players. From what I’ve seen both in the US and in Germany, he’s a great outlet, so when teams are under pressure you can give him the ball on the wing or in the middle of the pitch and he’s able to get out of trouble. He’s very similar to Hazard, but I wouldn’t put him at the same level just yet, and I’m apprehensive to make that comparison as he’s only 20 years of age but he has that ability as a player and if he continues to develop, he’s on the path to becoming the best American player that has ever come through.
The way Pulisic dribbles and glides past players; is he the closest thing you can get as a replacement for Hazard?
Yes. Again, I don’t think he’s quite at that level just yet and there’s no shame in that, the rd is a brilliant player! But he definitely has the potential if he continues to grow and improve. But with Hazard leaving it gives him an opportunity, as he needs to play games, especially at that age and at that stage of development. Being a 2o-year-old playing for Chelsea is no small feat, so hopefully, he will get that opportunity and there is no telling how good he could be.
And will Weston McKennie next young star coming through the ranks for the USA?
He isn’t a utility player but he has played all over the pitch for Schalke in a number of different positions and it would be good to see him lock down a position. I was similar, where I played all across the back four and even as a defensive midfielder, and it’s difficult when you’re getting moved around. It gives you opportunities to play but I think ultimately he wants to lock down a position and play in one position regularly.
Megan Rapinoe spoke about not attending The Whitehouse; do you think she should go if invited by Trump?
There has been a lot of that recently since Trump took over, with players not wanting to go to The White House because they don’t agree with a lot of his policies or a lot of things that he says. I do think the office of The President should be respected, no matter who is in office. Ultimately, the United States was built on a number of principles, one of them being freedom of speech and she is entitled to say what she wants, how she wants and when she wants and I guess one of her forms of protest could be to not go, so if that is her prerogative, that’s entirely up to her.
With everything she’s done, she’s had an incredible career, especially of late, but whatever she decides to do after that she has the platform to do so, whether she wants to use it for the greater good. I don’t disagree with the message, but it doesn’t mean that I agree on how she chooses to present her message.
What do you think on the pay disparity between the women and men’s game? What should be done to help reduce this?
I think it’s difficult, but there are a couple of sides to it. I know the women’s team want to be paid the same as the men’s national team in the US, but there are differences in how it is structured, which needs to change. The women’s national team is salaries, and the men’s team doesn’t have that; it’s all bonuses and performance-based. So you’re comparing apples to oranges there, so the structure of how the women are paid needs to change, maybe they don’t want it to change but I’m not privy to that. But I just read the other day that the women’s national; team jersey for this year was the highest selling kit in the United States, which is huge.
They’re obviously bringing a lot of money into the federation; I don’t know the expenditure and there will be an economic side to it, where the federation will want to subsidize or spend more money on the women’s game than the men’s, but I do think it needs it be addressed. I think the conversation is there and it needs to happen. The reality is there are a lot of differences between what comes in between the men’s and women’s games.
You arrived at United at the same time as Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003; did the whole squad know instantly that he was special?
He was a frustrating player. You could see that he had so much ability but that he wasn’t a finished product just yet. I think he owes a lot for the player he is today not just to the manager but the players that were around him.
Ferguson did a great job of having players in the team that could help the players around them, make everyone around them better players. I think those formative years in his development to make him the finished product; he couldn’t have been at a better place than Manchester United.
You could see his final ball wouldn’t quite be there, you could see at times Ruud Van Nistelrooy might get really frustrated because he didn’t know how many step-overs Ronaldo was going to do before putting the ball into the box for him but his ability on the ball, to beat players one-on-one, it was clear to see that he was going to be a very special player.
Fergie was famous for the hairdryer treatment but supposedly not towards Ronaldo; would that be fair?
It’s funny, Ferguson never spoke to me that way either. I think Ferguson was incredibly clever with that because he knew how to speak to players, that they might not all react the same way to criticism. Some players responded well to an arm around, some players responded well when you got into them and he knew how to speak to players, so he was very clever with that. But I never saw him scream at Ronaldo, but I don’t think it was preferential, he just knew the best way of getting the best out of his players.
Was there any specific player you remember getting the hairdryer treatment?
I do remember a couple of times he got into players, I’ve seen it on a couple of occasions. There was one time with Kieran Richardson in the changing room, after a cup game. We had a number of younger players playing and he was the older player of that group, and I think Fergie was making an example of him rather than him being at fault. It was an example that ‘to the rest of you, this is not acceptable’.
Again, he picked on him as he was clever, as he knew Kieran Richardson could handle that, and it was an example to us that we don’t want to be on the wrong side of that
The following season, United signed Wayne Rooney – was he just a special player from the moment he signed?
Yes he was a very special player and even now he’s playing with DC United in the states and he’s still got ability on the ball, he just scored from his own half – incredible strike! At the time, he was someone who you could tell was a very special player and he’s gone on to have the career to prove it.
Gerard Pique also joined at the same time – could you tell he was a class above?
Pique and I played a lot in the reserves together in my first season. Both of us trained with the first team a lot, and I don’t think the English game suited him. It’s amazing when you see players go from one league to the next and how successful they can be in one league having been unsuccessful in another. There are just certain players and the way they play suits a style, and I don’t think the English game suited his style particularly well. But he’s certainly gone on and won just about everything with club and country. You could tell he was a good player, very good on the ball but I don’t know if the physicality suited him at the time, but he definitely found the right place to be for himself.
Best player you played with?
The best player that I played with was by far Paul Scholes. There were great players in that team and I was really fortunate to play with some of the best players in the world. The difference with Scholes was mental; you could tell he was always a step ahead of everyone else on the pitch. You never really saw him lose the ball, and that was why; he knew exactly where he was going to be when he got it and knew the exact positions of everyone else on the pitch – it was like he had eyes in the back of his head. He was incredible to watch and such a talent. You hear that football is played in the head and the feet are just the controls, and he is the perfect example of that.
You were at United at the same time as now-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; could you tell that he would go into management? What qualities did he have as a person and a player that lent itself to management?
At the time I didn’t know that he would go into management, but maybe it was something in his mind that he knew he wanted to do, but I couldn’t tell it at the time. I think he is definitely the right person for the job after Mourinho. Such contrasting styles in how they both speak to the media and the players, and he is someone who will absolutely instill confidence in his team and someone that the players will want to play for.
A lot is said about what a great individual he is, but he also has very high standards for himself and I’m sure he will for his team as well. But I think with the squad that he has there now, I think he’s the right person for the job, but I just hope that he is given enough time to get them back challenging for the Premier League and the Champions League.
Does he need to ensure he wins trophies to keep the job, or will United give him time to rebuild the squad and achieve success?
The young signings suggest that he will be given the time but I’m not sure that is always the case and it is unfortunate that nowadays managers are given such a short leash and are not given the time, and that is one of the things that I think football clubs get completely wrong.
Their patience is actually a huge detriment and also the fact that it is the pressure from fans and media, and a lot of times they cave to the pressure and think they have to make changes and unfortunately the manager is always the scapegoat. Sometimes it is the right decision but I think that not giving a manager enough time is a huge mistake, particularly when they are inheriting a team that may not play the way they want them to. That takes time to change that tactically, and also they may not be the players that they want for the way they want to play.
Looking at it objectively, Liverpool has done well giving Klopp a good amount of time, which is hard to do as I played for Manchester United and still support the club. But I think that Liverpool have done a very good job of finding the right manager for the club and given him the time to get it right and he’s been a massive success.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has just joined United; what do you make of him and how do you think he will get on?
It’s a difficult one because I think the back four is certainly somewhere that they have had issues, but he had a really good season last year and hopefully he can replicate that. It’s going to be difficult to nail down a starting position at the club. But they’ve bought somewhere that they need to strengthen and hopefully he will develop into the player that people think he will.
Strong rumors about Harry Maguire joining United; what kind of a boost would he be if United could secure his services for the season ahead?
I was actually a bit surprised by it. I think he’s a very good central defender and he has proven himself at the international level as well, but a part of me thought that they would go abroad to fill that role. I thought they would potentially be chasing someone like De Ligt but Maguire is a good player and I think he could be good for the club, but only for the right price. It seems like English players command a premium and if they could get him for the right price, I think it would be a good buy.
You obviously joined United at a young age; what advice would you give to him? What was the pressure of playing for Manchester United like?
There’s an immense amount of pressure at a club like that, although I joined at a different time in terms of where they had finished the previous year, as they just won the league the year before. But the club is always expected to win which can be very difficult coming off a ‘not a great’ season, and when you’re rebuilding. I think it’s going to be a difficult year for the club again. I don’t think they’ll be able to challenge for the Premier League, or even for the Champions League spots.
Even if they bring in a few good players, it does take time to get players and the team to play the way you want. Mentally, he’s going to have to be really strong.
Ashley Young may be in trouble; do you see this as his last year at Old Trafford with the arrival of Wan-Bissaka?
It’s difficult to say, and I do think the view is for Wan-Bissaka to come in and play, but he has to prove himself in pre-season. He’ll be given the opportunity so long as he has earned it and he performs.
Matteo Darmian is also set to have to face more competition now; what do you think the new arrival means for his Old Trafford future?
I think there’s a good chance that he’ll be viewed as excess, and could move on. I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know, but as an individual, he may want to stay and challenge for a place at the club.
There is the of Lukaku moving to Inter; would he be a big loss? You played with Van Nistelrooy who lived for scoring goals; is that the goal-scoring form that United expect of their frontman?
I think so. Lukaku is a very good player but very different from Ruud. Ruud could disappear for 80 minutes but you knew if he got one chance he was going to score. I do feel that Lukaku needs a couple of opportunities if he’s going to score a goal, so I do think that fans get frustrated by that. Unfortunately, they were spoiled with Van Nistelrooy!
Anyone you would like to see join if Lukaku moves on? Or would you want Rashford to take that spot?
I think it would be great if Rashford was able to step up and take that role but I don’t know that he is a finished product yet. It ‘s a young team that they’ve got and I think they need to find the right balance between youth and experience, and I’d love to see them bring in a proven goal scorer. More like a Van Nistelrooy. Which every club wants, someone you know who is going to get you a number of goals. Harry Kane is a perfect example, I’d love to see them bring in someone like that, but also I don’t know how much money is being made available for that position!
What are your thoughts on the Pogba situation? Do you think that United should get rid of him, or hold on to him at all costs?
He’s a great player but he left the club once before and he’s clearly looking to move on again. I’m not sure he’s the type of player to keep at the club because it’s unsettling. He is a big player when he is playing well, but from the outside, he seems like the kind of player who is going to move on every few years to a Juventus, a Real Madrid, and then two years later you could see him going to another big club.
I get the impression that he’s not the kind of player to stay in one place for too long. If the club thinks that they can still get the best out of him, then they should keep him, but if he’s unsettled or he’s going to unsettle the rest of the team, it’s time for him to move on.
In Fergie’s time, no one player was bigger than the team (Stam/Beckham/Keane, etc.); has Pogba become bigger than the club? Would Fergie have got rid of him?
I wouldn’t want to speak for him, but I think there’s a very good chance that he would have!
Is Trent Alexander Arnold the best fullback in the world at the moment?
Yes, it’s hard to think of another fullback that is better than him right now. He had the best season of any fullback I have watched. I don’t know if he is the best in the world, but he definitely had the best season of any of them. He had a really good year with Liverpool, and it will be a case of whether he can maintain that high level of performance next season.
How do you think Beckham will get on in setting up Inter Miami FC? What does he need to do to ensure success for his team out there?
I don’t know how much involvement he really has there or will have, obviously he is the face of it all, but the growth of the game in the US is incredible and there’s a lot of excitement around that club, just because he is involved in it (Or at the least, appears to be involved with it). I think that franchise will do well; Miami is a place that a lot of players will want to go, [particularly from a lifestyle point of view. I don’t think that they will have trouble attracting people because of Beckham’s name and the location.
But the problem at Orlando was that when the team wasn’t successful, and because the US doesn’t have teams that have been around for a few hundred years, you start to lose that fan-base. Atlanta is the polar opposite of that as they had succeeded in winning the MLS right away, and they’re still getting 40/50/60,000 people which is phenomenal.
I think Kaka was important in bringing recognition and excitement to the club, but he was coming to the end of his career. I remember playing against him in the 2009 Confederations Cup when we were winning 2-0 at half time, and I was marking him, and he was just so difficult to defend against. And he just wasn’t the same player at Orlando anymore, and it was tough to see, but he knew his career was coming to an end.
But I think someone like that generated excitement for the fans and the team, and I think Beckham will do the same in Miami. He’s not playing but he’s a part of that, and it gathers a lot of interest for the club. But if you stop getting the results, American fans can be a bit fickle, because they don’t grow up with that team in their hearts.