By Dave JohnsonCSNwashington.com
D.C. United is not looking to move and is working hard as I write this column to keep the D.C. in D.C. United, but Santino Quarantas retirement last week at the age of 27 reminded us that Baltimore has always been a great soccer town.
To be sure Baltimore remains a viable option for United, but only after all other avenues to secure a new stadium are exhausted with the emphasis on the exhausted part. If United - or any other MLS team for that matter - had to move, then it would succeed in Baltimore.
Professional soccer works in Baltimore right now. Okay it is indoor soccer. Still, since 1980 the Baltimore Blast has been drawing sizeable crowds downtown to the Baltimore Arena. And it should be noted that the Baltimore Arena makes R.F.K. Stadium look like a palace by comparison.
There was a time when the Blast was the hottest ticket in town and featured Nick Mangione, who is from one of the citys most dynamic soccer and business families. That time has passed, but there is a whole generation of fans in Baltimore who grew up with the Blast as their favorite team. Even with the current reduction in size and quality of the Major Indoor Soccer League, the Blast is able to draw anywhere between five and ten thousand fans to its games.
Quaranta is part of the strong tradition of soccer in Baltimore. On the east side of Baltimore in particular, the game has always thrived. Immigrant families who came from Europe continued to play the game in places like Patterson Park and they helped make soccer less of a foreign sport.
The Baltimore Bays were part of the attempt to make pro soccer happen on a major league level when two start-up leagues launched in 1967. This was a time when pro sports were starting to expand in the United States and based on increased interest in the 1966 World Cup in England soccer was included in that expansion.
The Bays were part of the National Professional Soccer League and lost in the championship series to the Oakland Clippers. The other league was called the United Soccer Association and included the Dallas Tornado, a team owned by Lamar Hunt. Hunt stayed with the game through the North American Soccer League and was instrumental in launching MLS.
Current UMBC head coach Pete Caringi had tryouts with the NASLs Washington Diplomats and spent his younger days going to the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street to see the Bays play. Caringi even skipped school with friends to try and get a glimpse of Pele at a Baltimore hotel when his famed New York Cosmos where in town to play the Bays.
Quaranta conjures up images of another player from east Baltimore. Like Quaranta, Sonny Askew was a midfielder. He made his debut with the NASLs Diplomats in 1977 at the age of 20. By 1979 Askew was important part of the team and scored 8 goals and had 6 assists in 29 games.
Keep in mind this was 1979 and the NASL was dominated by European and South American players and American struggled to make starting elevens and when they did they were often employed as defenders of goalkeepers. Askew stood out for his creative flair, but struggled to find time when Johan Cryuff arrived in D.C in 1980.
Askew never got to realize his full potential as a player and by 1984 the NASL was out of business. That does not diminish Askews legacy of being an American soccer pioneer who played in Washington, but represented the vibrant soccer city of Baltimore.
It certainly could be argued that Quaranta, like Askew, did not fulfill his potential on the soccer field. When he was drafted by D.C. United in 2001 at the age of 16, he was the youngest player ever drafted in MLS. Battles with drug and alcohol addiction reduced Quarantas effectiveness, but he still retires after 11 MLS seasons with an impressive resume including an MLS Cup title, an Open Cup title, an All-Star game appearance, and 15 caps with the U.S. Mens National Team.
Im going to fantasize about scoring goals at RFK, Im going to wake up and there are going to be days that happens, I understand that. But, really, I have absolutely nothing else I want to accomplish or need to accomplish in the game.
Quaranta had offers to go to other teams. Instead, Quaranta - showing a maturity beyond his years - is ready to move on with his career and family. Instead of chasing six-figure paydays in other MLS cities, Quaranta will work full-time with the Pipeline Soccer Club, a youth club he helped start in Baltimore, and work to help others in the substance abuse program that rescued him four years ago.
In the most important of ways Quaranta is a champion again. He should be proud of his career and his decisions. Baltimore should be proud of its soccer-playing native son, who carried on the citys rich tradition with the game.