U.S. Under-21 Men’s National Team defender Shane O’Neill had moved his way up the Colorado Rapids Academy system primarily as a forward and midfielder. Since his time with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team under head coach Tab Ramos, O’Neill has been primarily at center back for club and country. O’Neill took some time during the recent U-21 MNT camp to chat with ussoccer.com about the position switch and his hopes of joining the U.S. squad for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Had you ever played on the back line before joining the U.S. U-20 MNT for the previous cycle?
Shane O’Neill: “No, not before Tab put me back there with the U-20s over in Spain for the Marbella Cup [in October of 2012]. It was a bit of an adjustment, but it’s kind of worked out for me so far. Ever since then, it’s been my thing playing center back. Obviously it was a bit of a change. I still think I can offer something in the midfield if somebody wants me to play there, but so far it’s been good. Tab’s put a lot of faith in me. It was good moving back there during the whole U-20 cycle.”
So this switch was made in your first U-20 call-up?
SO: “Yes, right away when I came in, Tab kind of told me that he sees me playing center back for this group. He brought me in as a center back even though I hadn’t really played there that much, and he probably saw something in my game that suggested that I could play back there.”
O'Neill on Adjusting to Center Back
ussoccer.com: What were some of the biggest challenges making the move to defense?
SO: “There are little things that you don’t really know about if you’re not playing back there, challenges such as body positioning, communication and reading the game. I remember going to a couple camps early on and just kind of having no clue of any of that stuff. The U-20 staff really helped me out as I learned the little things about playing center back. I think it helped in the long run, and obviously the Rapids staff helped quite a bit, too.”
ussoccer.com: Are there any aspects of your midfield background that you think made this a successful transition?
SO: “As a midfielder, I was a ball-winner anyway, played 100 percent, won tackles and got stuck in. I think bringing that mentality to center back helps me out a bit. I have gradually moved back, starting as a forward in the Academy and then moving to midfield and then to center back. I’ve kind of gotten experience at every spot, so I think that’s helped to be able to see the game from different spots. As a center back, I’m just trying to read the game and work off of my experiences from the past.”
ussoccer.com: Outside of the U-20s, your club also embraced this move to the defense. Were you surprised by that?
SO: “At first I was pretty surprised. I thought it was only going to be a U-20s thing, and then last preseason the Rapids were like, ‘We want to play you at center back until the U-20 World Cup just so you can get those reps in. If you’re playing in the World Cup, at least you’ve got experience back there.’ So I got to the World Cup having played pretty well in MLS, and then I came back and they just kept putting me back there. It was good, though. I got on the field quite a bit last year and this year as a center back. I definitely didn’t expect it. I thought I was going to move back into the midfield, but as of now, it’s been good. Playing center back has been good to me.”
ussoccer.com: Are there any MLS or National Team players you have talked to who have undergone similar position switches?
SO: “Drew Moor is a guy who has moved around quite a bit – right back, center back, a little defensive midfield – so he’s talked to me about it a couple of times. I’m just trying to learn as I go, no matter what position I’ve been playing, because I’ve been playing a little bit of right back, too, this year. I’m just trying to stay solid and stay focused on the game, because when you’re put in different positions, sometimes it can get a little difficult because there hasn’t been too much consistency with it. But I definitely feel really comfortable at center back now having played there so much the last year.”
ussoccer.com: You had the opportunity at the start of the year to play for the senior team under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. What was that experience like?
SO: “It was a great experience being down in Brazil. We had intense training sessions and saw the standard of the best players for the National Team. It was a great experience to see that, and hopefully that’s just a stepping stone for the future. Obviously I don’t want that to be the pinnacle. Hopefully I can use that experience and build off of it.”
ussoccer.com: How beneficial was the MNT trip for you specifically on the defensive side?
SO: “It was huge just being around those guys – Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Clarence Goodson – just learning so much about playing center back from those guys, about communication, how to play organized. I learned so much being around the coaching staff. It definitely was a huge learning experience for me – invaluable really. I think that stood out, just learning from the best players from the National Team.”
The MNT Experience
ussoccer.com: What other advice or direction did you get out of camp, on or off the field?
SO: “I learned a lot about taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep, getting the right nutrition day in and day out. From the coaching staff’s perspective, they told me to try and move the line out a little quicker and organize the players in front of you, and I think that’s one thing I have taken away from it and trying to do a lot more this year. I’m trying to be a leader on the field and get the team higher and press, and be an organizer on the field. It definitely was not something that I was used to doing, so I’m trying to get used to it and trying to shape my game that way.”
ussoccer.com: How has the U.S. U-21 MNT camp been going so far?
SO: “It’s been good. It’s been great to see a lot of the guys from the U-20 World Cup and some of the new faces coming in. Hopefully all of us can use this as a chance to impress Jurgen and the staff, especially in the game against Tijuana. I think it’s a big opportunity for a lot of us to show what we can do on the field. I think it’s good to get the training sessions in with the team and get reunited with everybody and get in front of Jurgen. The training sessions have been good and everyone’s excited for the game. Hopefully we can get a result.”
At the U-21 Camp
ussoccer.com: How vital has this U-21 MNT camp been to get a jump-start on forming the USA squad for Olympic Qualifying down the road?
SO: “I think it would have been disappointing if we hadn’t done anything for a couple years and then just got brought back together for the Olympics. I think everyone is excited getting together to have a good camp. It’s short, but at the same time you’ve got to work hard. It’s nice seeing each other and meeting up again as a group to discuss how things are going. I think it’s been really positive for all of us, and it will only help our cause for the Olympics and qualifying.”
ussoccer.com: How excited are you about the opportunity and possibility of being part of an Olympic squad if everything pans out?
SO: “It’s a great opportunity for all of us. You always see a lot of great players at the Olympics, and you never know what can happen from there. This is an opportunity for us to test ourselves against the best teams in the world. It’s definitely something that we need to focus on, to make sure we qualify for, and once we’re there, anything can happen. The Olympics in Brazil probably does not get much better than that in terms of an environment for playing soccer. We’re all excited about it and just trying to stay focused and get into those qualifiers and do well.”
ussoccer.com: How invaluable was the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup to gain some strong international experience?
SO: “It was huge to know that we can play against some of the top guys over in Europe. We got a result against France, the eventual winner, so that was huge for us. It was a little bit unlucky that we got such a tough draw, but at the same time we played pretty well. If not for one or two things that happened, or the ball bouncing another way, maybe we get through. At the end of the day, those experiences are huge for us as a team, and I think we grew together a lot during that time period. I think that will just make us stronger.”
2013 U-20 World Cup
SO: “I think just confidence-wise, playing against guys like Paul Pogba and all those guys for France and Ghana who are doing well over in Europe, knowing you can play with those guys and not just play with them but play well, that’s just huge for your confidence level. Just to get those games under my belt – obviously I was disappointed to be suspended for the first game – but to get those two games under my belt in the World Cup, and just an atmosphere like that, playing for your country, it’s a great experience. I took a lot out of it confidence-wise.”
The U.S. Men’s National Team rode a shock opening win against fourth-ranked Portugal, a draw against the host Korea Republic and a little help from the goalposts to advance to the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Finishing second in the group meant that the MNT would have less than three full days rest to turn around and face regional rivals Mexico in the highest stakes match the two nations had ever played. With little time to prepare, in some respects the U.S. was lucky to have drawn the team with which it was most familiar.
Despite the U.S. having won four of the previous five meetings, according to U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, when the team arrived at Jeonju World Cup Stadium that June afternoon, there wasn’t much respect shown from the opposition side.
“Before the game we walked out and we were walking around the field. We had this focus and concentration as a team as you do preparing for any game,” the former team captain told ussoccer.com. “I was with Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart and we were ready to go – we were foaming at the mouth for this game. We looked over and the Mexicans were laughing, joking and looking at us…That was it.”
Reyna called the team over to quickly finish their pre-game pitch inspection and head back into the locker room.
“We sort of wanted the game to start, we were so ready to go,” he continued. “Back in the locker room, I remember saying, ‘These guys are laughing at us. They think they’re going to beat us easily.’”
Mexico had done efficient work to get to that point. Having finished with seven points atop a group that featured Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, El Tri’s run to the Round of 16 had the side brimming with self-assurance ahead of the match.
“They were feeling confident, but the lack of respect they showed was clear – you never do that,” said Reyna. “I would never do that in my career, even if I felt really comfortable about beating an opponent. That you’d be giggling, laughing and joking at the opponent. It was pretty clear that it was directed at us and at some of our players, and obviously we play them all the time so there’s that rivalry.”
“I remember saying, ‘We’re not losing this game guys.’ Everyone went around and you could feel it all the way through that we couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Reyna gets past Ramon Morales in the most famous "Dos a Cero" in Men's National Team history.
Injuries and suspensions limited the U.S. options, and Bruce Arena used the uncertainty to confound the Mexicans by deploying a 3-5-2 formation for the match. The switch saw Reyna move from his regular central midfield position to the right flank, with the move paying off almost immediately. Following an eighth minute foul in the Mexico half, Brian McBride quickly restarted as he saw Reyna pushing up the flank. The U.S. captain beat two defenders to the end line before centering for Josh Wolff, whose deft touch teed up McBride for a clinical finish and an equally gratifying goal celebration.
The goal set an early tone and played perfectly into Arena’s game plan, allowing the U.S. to sit in and pick its moments to counter against an increasingly frustrated Mexican side. Landon Donovan’s second- half header off an Eddie Lewis cross helped ice the game, giving the MNT its first ever World Cup knockout round win and a quarterfinal date with Germany.
“It was just a great team performance. To beat them 2-0, eliminate them and afterwards realize this was a big deal back in the States,” Reyna said.
The win raised the profile of the Men’s National Team more than any other since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but in an age before social media, Reyna admitted the players didn’t realize how big an impact the victory had made.
“We didn’t know how huge it was at home,” he said. “We were in Korea and we knew it was sort of growing in momentum. I remember seeing some of the news clips from Mexico City where there were people in plazas and squares crying over the result – that felt good.”
U.S. supporters celebrate during the MNT's 2-0 win against Mexico at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Though the momentum was already building towards U.S. domination of the rivalry, the World Cup win tipped the scales. Since 2000, the MNT has held a 13-6-5 advantage against El Tri.
“From that moment on, it continued to be a real domination of Mexico,” Reyna said. “We went on and beat them all the time. That was the point where we felt we were no longer playing behind them, that we were better than them.”
“It was one big coming out party on the biggest stage.”Read more