- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2001

When Santino Quaranta was 4 years old, his parents put the brown-haired boy into a Baltimore-area soccer league for 7-year-olds. And in his first game, he ran circles around the second-graders.

"He actually started from half field, went down and drilled a shot in the upper [corner]," said Quaranta's mother, Lisa. "It was unbelievable."

Quaranta has been schooling players nearly twice his age ever since. These days that means dribbling through 30-year-old defenders as a talented 16-year-old forward for D.C. United in Major League Soccer.

With three goals and an assist in his nine MLS games this season, Quaranta has proven he can handle the generation gap on the field. His biggest challenge has been balancing the opposing worlds of his life one as a professional athlete, the other as a teen-age boy.

"It's a lot of pressure sometimes, but I like that pressure I like having the spotlight on me," he said. "On the field, you really have to be always involved in the game. Off the field, this is your job, and you have to remember you represent the MLS."

Quaranta is the youngest player in MLS history to be drafted, play and score a goal in the league. In February's MLS SuperDraft, he beat the former youngest draftee, United teammate and friend Bobby Convey, by four months.

Quaranta celebrated his signing and the bonus check that came with it by buying a new car just four months after getting his driver's license. He now rolls in a $40,000 Infiniti QX4 sport utility vehicle.

"I like the luxury, man," he said.

The extra money and added attention, though, have not affected Quaranta and his easygoing approach toward everything, including soccer.

"I'm just trying to have a good time and go with the flow," he said while lounging back in a folding chair in front of his locker. "Don't let it go to your head, that's the first thing that I learned… . That's when you start having a lot of problems."

Because United decided to go with a youth movement this season, Quaranta's adjustment has been easier. There are still a handful of veterans from United's three MLS Cup champions Marco Etcheverry, Eddie Pope and Jaime Moreno but the average age of the roster is only 24. Including Quaranta, five of United's 23 players are not old enough to drink legally.

"It's amazing," said forward Abdul Thompson Conteh, who turned 31 this month. "I mean, here I am playing on a team full of very young players. We have some rough diamonds here to cut."

From the ground up, though, the skillful Quaranta doesn't look like he'll need too much polishing.

His big, strong calves curve upward toward even bigger, stronger thighs. The bottom of his white D.C. United practice jersey hangs flatly over his fit midsection before billowing out under his muscular chest. He carries his 6-foot, 165-pound frame with the air of a soccer savvy man and runs with the speed and stride of an Olympic sprinter.

"He's a big, strong kid who can run," United president and general manager Kevin Payne said. "He's got some very special abilities."

But the image alters at the top. Like many teen-agers, Quaranta has complexion problems, and his half-crooked smile masks the uneasiness of a kid.

"I think he's a typical 16-year-old," said goalkeeper Mike Ammann, who is 30 and has two children. "It's kind of funny to see the difference between him and some of the older players. He's got a different lifestyle."

Proof of that came May 19, when Quaranta scored his first MLS goal on a Saturday evening in Columbus, Ohio. The feat landed him on ESPN's "SportsCenter." Less than 24 hours earlier, he was in Baltimore attending his girlfriend's junior prom.

"It was crazy," Quaranta said. "I went to the prom the night before, flew in a couple of hours before the game, [ate] my pregame meal, scored and then came back."

In addition to practice and games, Quaranta is still pursuing his high school education. He visits a tutor in Northern Virginia three times a week and is on pace to earn his GED by next summer, the same time he would have graduated from Baltimore's Archbishop Curley High School had he stayed beyond his sophomore year.

"I want to keep my education and always have an option in case something happens," he said. "I'm done with the major subjects, but I'm going to take a couple more courses."

Quaranta still lives at home in his grandmother's house in Highlandtown, the predominantly Italian area on the eastern outskirts of Baltimore where he grew up.

Nearby, his three younger brothers live with their father, Tommy, while Lisa lives on the other side of the street and looks after the kids when Tommy is not home. His parents have been separated for three years.

The living situation allows Quaranta to come and go as he pleases and affords him a lot of privacy, "but anytime he wants to come around his brothers, they're right there," Lisa said. "He's a good brother."

Just like any teen-ager with brothers ages 11, 13 and 15 Quaranta gets into tussles when they get on his nerves or vice versa.

"He agitates them," Lisa said with a laugh. "They still fight, trust me."

The character gained by being the oldest of four children has aided Quaranta as he has progressed from being one of the world's best players in his age group to a boy in a league filled with men. That type of leap takes a strong mind as well as a strong body.

"He's very mature, very independent, and I think he had to be," Lisa said. "He's the oldest, so he kind of had to play that role and be independent and pretty much out on your own."

Actually, Lisa has been the slowest in accepting Quaranta's new life as a professional athlete.

On July 30, in a home match against the Colorado Rapids, Quaranta stayed on the ground after a hard tackle in the first half. He was taken into the locker room by team trainers, and when he did not return to the sideline after halftime Lisa began to worry.

She and a friend convinced a guard to let her into the United locker room to check on her son "I just wanted to make sure he didn't break his leg" but Quaranta didn't appreciate her concern when she peeked her head in and saw him flat on a table with a bag of ice on his thigh.

"He said, 'Mom, what are you doing in here? Get outta here,' " Lisa said.

"You know, that's just a motherly instinct to go check on your son. I have to remember that he's a professional. I can't treat him like that.

"I guess it's hard for him, you know? He's with all these adults, all these men, and he's got to go play that role and be that figure. He can't have his mother running around, right?"

Then, chuckling, she added, "I won't do it again."

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