Opportunity knocks for Spector
Count Jonathan Spector as one of those inspired by Barcelona's 5-0 hammering of Real Madrid in El Clasico last month. It was one of the most complete performances of all time.
Spector went out the next day and scored his first two goals in English soccer, as West Ham upset his former club, Manchester United, 4-0 to reach the Carling Cup semifinals. "I watched the Barcelona game and it was unbelievable, but I wouldn't compare myself to any of those players," Spector joked.
The jack-of-all-trades Spector has reason to be in good spirits, even if the Hammers are rock bottom in the Premier League. He has started three straight games and hopes to make it four this weekend when West Ham visits Blackburn, which might still be reeling from the shock firing of larger-than-life boss Sam Allardyce.
Spector got his chance against United at Upton Park mostly because of injuries to key midfielders. Not many expected the Hammers to advance despite the Red Devils resting several regulars. The Illinois native opened the scoring with an instinctive diving header, then doubled the advantage with a neat finish from close range. Spector was deprived of a hat trick because of a delayed -- and correct -- offside ruling.
Against United, West Ham manager Avram Grant employed Spector in an advanced role in central midfield, a la Scott Parker, instead of his usual slot at full back. Spector had suited up in midfield in previous seasons, so the move made sense. He proved that again against Sunderland on Dec. 5, when he almost scored after bursting into the box.
"He is a good professional who always tries hard," Grant told reporters following the Carling Cup quarterfinal. "The last month we changed his position in training to midfield, and he has done very well."
Before the match against United, Spector hadn't played for two months, and he wasn't injured during that span. According to reports, Grant benched Spector following a 3-0 league loss to United in late August. During that time, which Spector called "difficult" and "frustrating," he sometimes wasn't even named as a sub. His inactivity fueled a rumor that he would move to Germany in the January transfer window, but Spector said that he knows nothing of it and would prefer to stay at West Ham to help the team reverse its fortunes.
Spector also said he has a good relationship with the perennially dour-looking Grant, with the pair sharing at least one thing in common -- a love of basketball and Michael Jordan.
It helps, of course, that West Ham is at least alive in the Carling Cup. But wouldn't it be bizarre if the team won that trophy and got relegated at season's end? While Spector & Co. face a winnable two-leg semifinal against Birmingham in the league Cup next month, climbing out of the EPL basement figures to be a more daunting challenge.
"It was a great feeling to be part of a winning performance, because I hadn't been in the team for a while," Spector said of the team's Carling Cup performance. "It's hard when you can't affect what's happening on the pitch, particularly when the team is in a bad position."
Bad? Try terrible. West Ham is four points from safety and has chalked up two league victories all season, both at Upton Park. One came against high-flying Tottenham, and the other was courtesy of relegation-threatened Wigan in a game West Ham billed as "Save Our Season." Yes, it was only November at the time.
West Ham has been awful on the road, with no wins and the second-lowest point tally. Particularly poor was a 3-0 thumping at Liverpool. Last weekend, not having to confront a suspended Carlos Tevez, the Hammers still fell meekly to Manchester City 3-1 in east London. A fooled Spector took the blame for the first goal, not sticking with Yaya Toure at the top of the box.
On paper, the Hammers shouldn't be in trouble. Take the midfield, for instance. The roster includes Parker, Mark Noble, Valon Behrami, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Jack Collison. They might not be world-beaters, but they're a capable lot. Injuries have taken their toll, of course, but you expected more from them.
The congested fixture list over the holiday period gives West Ham an opportunity to get the ball rolling. After Blackburn, the Hammers travel to slumping Fulham, host inconsistent Everton, and entertain second-to-last Wolves. Forget the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. These are the critical matches that West Ham must win to dig itself out of trouble.
And Spector should continue to play a role, given his form and the squad's continued injury problems.
"All he can do is put in the performances," said former England striker Tony Cottee, who made more than 300 appearances for West Ham. "Mark is out until the New Year, so is Jack, two key players who would probably be in front of Jonathan. I think he's going to get a run of games over Christmas. If he plays as well as he did against United, and I think he played decent against Sunderland, he'll keep his place."
The dressing room backs Grant and team spirit isn't bad, according to Spector. But if the BBC is correct, Grant has three games to save himself. If West Ham doesn't win one, it reported, he's out. Big Sam is a possible solution.
"For someone looking at it from the outside, our morale is surprisingly better than what they would expect," Spector said. "We're all confident in our ability and feel individually we have good players. It's just a matter of us coming together. Once we do that, there's no reason why we can't start picking up points.
"The manager is doing the best he can, and I think we respect that," Spector added. "A lot of time the managers get the blame for players not performing, so we have to take responsibility for that."
On the international front, Spector's own mood was understandably dampened in South Africa. He failed to play a single minute in four World Cup games for the U.S., bypassed at right back by veteran Steve Cherundolo. Spector got through it by looking ahead to the Premier League season.
His emergence in midfield at club level gives U.S. manager Bob Bradley something to think about. Does Bradley consider using Spector in central midfield, where numerous options already exist? That's not a likely scenario. Or does Bradley keep him at full back? Then again, Cherundolo and Spector face competition from Eric Lichaj, on the rise at Aston Villa.
Spector has no preference. But once in a while he wonders how things would have turned out had he been played in one position rather than become an American version of United's Irishman, John O'Shea, another jack-of-all-trades. Cottee, who complimented Spector by saying he was no "big-time Charlie," doesn't know what his best spot is.
"It's a goal of mine to play at the next World Cup," Spector said. "In what position, who knows?"
For now, Spector's focus will remain on helping West Ham get out of the basement, which would be no small feat in itself.
London-based writer Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.