Thomas Quaranta is a big fan of The Godfather. So big that when his son Thomas Jr. had his first child, Senior suggested that the boy be called Santino, after James Caan's character in the movie. Santino's parents couldn't have known it at the time, but it was fitting that they named him for the Corleone known as Sonny. A 16-year-old forward for D.C. United, Quaranta is the youngest pro athlete in a major U.S. team sport. (The similarities between Santino Quaranta and Santino Corleone end with the nickname. Quaranta is no hothead, and last week, while driving to lunch near United's offices in suburban Washington, he navigated his Infiniti SUV, which he bought shortly after he signed his contract, through two toll booths on Route 267 without getting gunned down.)
Quaranta (pronounced kwa-RON-tuh) grew up in Highlandtown, a blue-collar neighborhood in southeast Baltimore that reminds his coach, Thomas Rongen, of another mob family. "It's like something out of The Sopranos" says Rongen. "In Amsterdam, I grew up in the same sort of street environment, and I'll tell you, it makes you grow up quick." Quaranta learned the game on a sandy pitch behind a school across the street from his house, and he was often the smallest and youngest player. That helped develop his toughness as well as his flair, a combination that has served him well in his rookie season in MLS. Through Sunday he had netted five goals in 13 games, been named Player of the Week in mid-July for scoring twice in a 3-1 win over New England and started the July 28 All-Star Game.
The 6-foot, 165-pound Quaranta is the youngest member of a youth movement that's sweeping the league. His teenage cohorts include Landon Donovan, a 19-year-old striker for the San Jose Earthquakes, who scored four goals in the All-Star Game; the Chicago Fire's DaMarcus Beasley, another 19-year-old All-Star starter and one of the league's most dangerous attacking midfielders; Quaranta's 18-year-old teammate, midfielder Bobby Convey, who was elected to start the All-Star Game but missed the match because of a hernia; and Edward Johnson, a 17-year-old striker who has given the Dallas Burn a lift off the bench. "These kids are great for soccer," says D.C. goalkeeper Mike Ammann, who's 30, "but it's also a negative because we're putting undue pressure on them to come in so young and make a difference."
Of course, the youngsters wouldn't be facing such high expectations if they weren't good enough to foster them. Unlike NBA teams, which feel compelled to troll for high schoolers, MLS clubs don't sign players—the league does. MLS's brass is doing its best to bring in only teens with a bona fide chance of thriving on and off the field. "We have more control," says deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. "Our teams are not falling all over each other to get into the teenage market."
All the chosen ones possess an innate ability to attack, score and, ultimately, put people in the stands. "It's something we consciously look for," says Gazidis. "A player who has magic in his feet, you can't teach that." Which is in part why D.C—with Quaranta, Convey and their magic feet—led MLS in road attendance through Sunday, despite its 6-12-2 record.
By the time he was a sophomore at Archbishop Curley Prep, Quaranta had caught the attention of scouts from the U.S. Soccer Federation, which footed the bill to move him to Bradenton, Fla., where he trained with the rest of the national Under-17 team. Quaranta and his 17 teammates went to school every morning, practiced every afternoon and did their homework every evening, all the while living at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy. Such soccer academies are commonplace in England: Quaranta's favorite player, striker Michael Owen, began his apprenticeship with Liverpool at age 11 and was in that club's academy by the time he was 14. What's more, it's hard to argue with the results. The second American U-17 team to pass through the academy finished fourth in the 1999 world championship, with Donovan winning the Gold Ball as the tournament's MVP and Beasley receiving the Silver Ball as the second leading scorer in the tournament.
Being a 15-year-old living away from home wasn't always easy for Quaranta. "When you're there, you think, What am I doing here? I want to be a normal teenager, go to school with my friends," he says. "You wonder if what you are doing is worth it. It was for me."
That was because he shone on the field: Quaranta had 23 goals and 22 assists in 51 games. He signed with MLS in January 2001, and one month later United chose him with the eighth pick in the draft. Being selected by D.C. has allowed Quaranta to live with his family in Baltimore. MLS has tried to ensure suitable living arrangements for other teens who have moved from home. When Convey, a Philadelphian, joined the league in 2000, he lived with Kevin Payne, United's CEO and general manager. Johnson, a rookie from Palm Coast, Fla., lives with Burn assistant coach Brian Haynes.
While living in familiar surroundings, Quaranta could focus on the prospect of playing alongside men twice his age. "I was worried," he says. "I didn't have a clue what to expect. How were the guys going to treat me? Were they going to accept me?" Quaranta got his answer after his first practice. As he stood at his locker conducting an interview, Ammann took a coffee filter, filled it with shaving cream and tossed the makeshift pie in his face. Quaranta went along with the gag, which endeared him to the veterans.
"He gravitates to the older guys because they want to teach him the ropes, and he's eager to learn," says Rongen. On the road Quaranta no longer rooms with Convey, recently sharing quarters with Abdul Thompson Conteh, a 31-year-old forward from Sierra Leone. In May the older guys went to bat for Quaranta when he wanted to go to his girlfriend's junior prom, which was scheduled the night before a road game. After defender Eddie Pope explained the significance of that night for 16-year-old American boys, Rongen gave Quaranta the go-ahead. Quaranta had a blast, caught a plane at nine the next morning, reached Columbus, Ohio, in time for the pregame meal and scored his first MLS goal.