Where do you begin with a player like Santino Quaranta? From one of the league's youngest debutants, to off-field personal problems, stemming from injury, to an emotional return to where it all began with D.C. United. Irrespective of your personal opinion, it can't be argued that Quaranta has left an indelible mark on Major League Soccer.
Now 27, he surprisingly announced his retirement last week after it was revealed D.C. United would not be picking up his option for the 2012 season. To retire is a big decision for any player, but as Quaranta explains, it was not an impulsive one. "I thought about it for a while," he said. "I've got a lot going on in terms of business stuff and youth sports. This way I get to walk away on my terms after a pretty long run at it."
I'm keen to ask him the obvious questions first, including what it's like being retired. He likens it to a bubble bursting, but not in a negative way. He reaffirms his love for the game and everything it gave him, but appreciates his time in soccer was spent living in a slightly self-contained environment.
Now working with Pipeline Soccer Club, a youth side based in his home state of Maryland, the end of his playing days does not mean severing all ties with D.C. United. Quaranta intends to stay in touch with the club's academy. He speaks with a genuine passion about enhancing young soccer players' lives, and potentially bringing through the next generation of American players.
Having been through a complex and much publicized past of his own, Quaranta has had his fair share of unique life experiences. With that in mind, I ask him if he thinks that those same experiences provide him the opportunity to bring something unique to coaching roles. "That was the single biggest reason why I felt there was more out there for me to do," he said. "I went through a lot. It's not just in soccer, a lot of people struggle with addiction and everything that goes along with that."
Those events are inked upon Quaranta in the form of his numerous tattoos. Although he now possesses more free time, don't expect to see him gain more artwork. "I haven't been tattooed in like eight or nine months," he admitted. "Back in the day when I first got them, I was shunned on. Now everybody thinks they're cool. I was ahead of my time I think. I've already told my wife our kids better not get tattoos."
I point out the double standards in denying his kids tattoos, and his retort is both quick and humorous, "I'm just going to be wearing long sleeves all the time, like in 110 degree weather with long sleeves on." It's difficult not to warm to Quaranta, his friendly and relaxed disposition makes me think he could be the ideal candidate for coaching.
While he'll play no part for United in its upcoming season, he's still excited about the project. Eulogizing about his love for the club, and what they have planned, he believes that in head coach Ben Olsen the club has chosen the right man. "Benny is definitely the right guy for the job. With a piece or two, I could see them winning an MLS Cup no problem," he said.
Olsen is clearly someone Quaranta holds a lot of respect for. He looks back fondly on their time as roommates, "acting like a pair of mongrels" as he puts it, and cites Olsen as the main reason he returned to D.C. in 2008. "It's something I will always remember," he said. "He was the big reason I came back. They gave me a chance and I think it worked out well for both sides."
In amongst talk of his former club, Quaranta focuses his attention on one man in particular, Andy Najar. The 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year is still only 18, and Quaranta believes the Honduran needs help with things both on and off the soccer field. "He's had a lot thrown at him from an early age and he needs mentoring," he said. "I think where he's going to go with the game will be astonishing. He's an unbelievable kid and I look at guys in England like, [Aaron] Lennon and [Theo] Walcott, and I will go on record and say I think he has more potential than Walcott."
Despite Najar's glowing report from Quaranta, much of the focus at D.C. last season was attributed to veteran playmaker Dwayne De Rosario. Last month saw the Canadian named MLS MVP for 2011, and Quaranta believes that ‘DeRo' is right to expect more money for his performances. "He's the most underpaid, underrated player that this league's ever seen. He does it consistently every year. [Thierry] Henry even said it, Dwayne's the face of MLS. He's going to be huge for D.C. next year, which is good and bad sometimes, because there has to be other guys that take some of that pressure off him."
Having discussed his move into coaching, I'm curious to know if Quaranta sees himself as a potential manager one day. "I don't know," he says reluctantly. "I'm the kind of guy who likes to be a bit more free flowing, that likes to have a laugh with everybody. I don't know if I could make those tough decisions."
Now enjoying the simple things in life, which include taking his kids to school, Quaranta looks back fondly on his career, which included an MLS Cup win in 2004, and a Gold Cup victory with the U.S. one year later. "They can never take those things away: the Gold Cup, the goal at RFK in front of my friends and family, all these experiences I can take away with me," he said.
Once a player with the club, it seems only a matter of time before Quaranta works again with D.C. United, and whatever that capacity may be, they'll be lucky to have him.