Chicago Fire midfielder John Thorrington did not take part in full training last week. However, the injured 30-year-old did put himself and a teammate through the paces under a blistering hot sun, organizing drills, offering instruction, and performing the simplest of ball work with animal-like intensity.
But that’s Thorrington. Unafraid to get in your face and seemingly terrified to take a play off, the feisty central midfielder has been unnerving MLS opponents with his hard-nosed efforts for years.
But Thorrington was not always the uncompromising veteran. In fact, the diminutive midfielder was once a darling of American soccer. Signed to a professional contract by Manchester United in 1997 at the age of 17, big things were expected of the Southern California native.
“I got offered [a contract] based on a tryout that I’d had one summer,” Thorrington said. “I didn’t realize it would lead down the path it eventually did. It had always been my dream, but I didn’t know how realistic it was. But then once I got the offer, saw the place, and got the blessing of my parents, I went for it.”
He never made a competitive first team appearance at Manchester United and bounced around Europe after leaving Old Trafford in 1999. He found a decent amount of success in England’s third division in the early 2000s before returning home to the United States in 2005. He’s been with the Fire ever since. This week, things come full circle for Thorrington, as his old club, Manchester United, arrives in Chicago on Monday.
Thorrington started his Man Utd career with the youth team. The entire first year he was in Manchester, he was playing with kids his own age. At the conclusion of year one, Thorrington made the move up to the reserves.
But it was when he was with the youth team that Thorrington was first exposed to Manchester United’s philosophy on developing players. As one might expect, the club did more than emphasize merely winning games (of course, overemphasizing the importance of winning is a main criticism of the American youth system). Technical performance was a large part of the coaching staff’s emphasis and, as Thorrington explained, if a team or player’s play wasn’t up to par, the staff let them know about it.
“I think that at Manchester United, it’s a combination [of emphasizing results and technical skill],” Thorrington said. “I’ve certainly heard the criticism, and as somebody that’s interested in the future of American soccer, I know exactly what you’re referring to.
"I do think winning’s important. I don’t think it’s the only important thing. I think certainly if you can win a game, that that shouldn’t sweep development under the carpet. I know at Man United, winning is very important. But if you win and you didn’t play well, that didn’t mean your coach was satisfied.”
Thorrington, who played with current United first teamers Wes Brown and John O’Shea while with the club, said that the secret to the Red Devils' success goes far beyond developing the best players. He mentioned a consistent philosophy amongst all the levels of the club – from the first team to the academy – as a key to the team’s sustained ability to win games at the highest level.
“The style of play gets trickled down from the top,” Thorrington said. “You are taught to play exactly as the first team is, and obviously the pace of the game and everything is faster the higher up you go, but… [they teach you the philosophy] just so that when you do hopefully make that step up, you’re prepared for it.”
Sir Alex Ferguson was then – and still is – the man leading the charge for United. His record-setting reign as manager extends back to 1986 and includes 11 league championships, five FA Cup triumphs, and two Champions League titles.
Though Thorrington did not have what anyone would call a close relationship with Ferguson while in Manchester (the midfielder said the extent of their relationship was saying, "Hi" to each other in the hallway), he still holds the Scottish manager in very high regard.
“From the time I was there, I had an unbelievable amount of respect, for not just his success, but how he did it and how he sort of adapted over time,” Thorrington said. “It’s so hard to be as successful as he has in almost three or four different eras with totally different teams. Just in my two years there, I can see exactly how that has happened. As I look to my future and see however I’m involved in soccer, I think that experience of seeing him up close would be invaluable for me.”
Though Thorrington’s career did not pan out exactly how he imagined it, he would not change a thing about his decision to go to Manchester United.
“I certainly would make the exact same decision,” Thorrington said. “Looking back it sounds crazy, but that was 12-13 years ago, and I can still draw on those experiences now. It was invaluable.”