ussoccer.com’s comprehensive coverage of the World Cup includes highlighting some of the players and personalities that will take the field for the U.S. in Korea. Today we look closely at midfielder John O’Brien, who has plied his trade in Holland since 1994. O’Brien now is a regular at Ajax Amsterdam, a club with one of the most storied histories in Europe.
The following article was originally published in “Center Circle”, U.S. Soccer’s monthly e-zine in November, 2001 (/articles/viewArticle.jsp_2676.html). “Center Circle” gives you a unique, behind-the-scenes look at soccer and the U.S. National Teams every month via e-mail.
"Will the Real John O'Brien Please Stand Up?"
"I told him I didn't know he could play soccer," said U.S. Head Coach Bruce Arena, joking after O'Brien's great performance in the World Cup qualifier against Jamaica on October 7 in Foxboro.
Science defines motion as the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy.
For John O'Brien, the 24-year-old midfielder who has spent seven years as a stranger in a strange land, battling injuries and the weight of expectation, his career for both club and country may indeed finally be in motion.
After a tumultuous three-year span in which he has missed months at a time due to injury and half of the USA's 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, O'Brien is poised to take his place among the American elite. It's something that he has worked fervently to achieve, and something that so many have been waiting for.
Perhaps never before has there been an American player with so much unfulfilled potential as the protégé from Playa del Ray, Calif. O'Brien started his long journey at the famed Ajax Youth Academy in Amsterdam, following in the footsteps of football legends like Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard to name a few, becoming the first American player to earn such a pedigree.
"If you're in the youth system at Ajax, you're obviously already a good player. You have certain techniques, and your tactical vision is good enough for you to be at that level," said long-time U.S. national team stalwart Earnie Stewart, who has played professionally in Holland for more than a decade. "For him to make it to the first team is pretty much incredible."
So much potential…
As an 18-year old, he led the U.S Under 20's to the World Youth Championships in Malaysia in 1995. And he got noticed. He signed his first professional contract at the age of 21. Then the injuries came. For every step forward, there seemed to be two steps back. It began in January 1998, when a hamstring injury prevented O'Brien from completing the U.S. Men's National Team training camp that would mold the roster for the '98 World Cup. He had entered the camp with the understanding that his name had been penciled in.
He returned to action in April, and he spent the next season on loan to FC Utrecht, motivated to continue to grow after being forced to watch the World Cup on TV. He managed 19 games that season, scoring two goals, and his reputation grew. The American could play.
Then around Christmas ‘98, a toe injury would sideline him for the next three months. After just three weeks back, he re-injured the toe and returned to the infirmary for the rest of the season.
He would remain healthy through the 1999-00 season, the most difficult year of his career as a pro. The rigors of constantly having to fight for a place in the first team. The nagging injuries. The stress of playing for a new coach. The Olympics around the corner. John O'Brien was tired.
"I couldn't take a break. The coaches wouldn't permit that," said O'Brien, who arrived in Holland as a teenager in 1996. "So you just focus on your body and try to get better. You don't worry about the things you can't control. Sometimes you feel like the world is against you. Sometimes you feel like going someplace where you wouldn't have to fight so hard. But to me, that would be giving up."
And he didn't.
American fans finally got a bit of thirst-quenching last year when O'Brien took the stage in the Sydney Olympics, leading the U.S. Under-23 squad to a best ever fourth place finish. It was on this world stage that he showed his tantalizingly creative skills. He controlled the midfield and was that all-important link between the offense and defense. U.S. fans looked at World Cup qualifying with renewed spirit. The Ajax man was ready for the big time.
The MCL injury happened in February 2001. He returned briefly to the national team fold in June, only to appear as a substitute in the draw in Jamaica and the win against T&T in Foxboro. Once again, he had been forced back to the sidelines.
Strike two again (Foul tip).
Fast forward to October 7. O'Brien has recovered from the knee injury that kept him out for most of the summer. He's played for the Ajax reserves, and finally manages 90 minutes for the first team the week before the most important qualifier in U.S. history. The U.S. midfield has struggled through three straight losses, unable to hold possession and lacking players with the confidence to keep the ball at their feet. Reyna returns, and O'Brien is called upon to join him.
He's brilliant. He moves the ball quickly off his feet. He gets out of tight spaces, he beats defenders on the dribble. He serves dangerous crosses. Most importantly, he attacks.
In tandem with Reyna, Stewart and Chris Armas, the U.S. are able to reclaim the center of the park, re-emerging as a unit that can possess the ball, a team that can get out of trouble. And a team that can cause it. Many left Foxboro Stadium thinking O'Brien had earned Chevrolet Man of the Match honors. He left the stadium with a growing confidence.
"Going through those injuries and then coming back stronger has given me more confidence," said the freckled young man of Irish decent. "There's always the next game in soccer, and I might still get put on the bench next week, but it's good to have earned some respect and hopefully this will be the first step up the staircase."
Smart. Good speed of thought. A deft touch. The ability to find open players. Great positioning. Composure. For so long in the United States, that combination of skills has been attributed to only one player--the burden falling squarely on the shoulders of Claudio Reyna. In O'Brien, the U.S. may have found his skillmate. And according to Stewart, they are in select company.
"There's always a lack of those players, no matter where you are in the world. John is not afraid of receiving the ball and distributing the ball. He's always in the right place at the right time. Most importantly he has the ability to slow the game down. Claudio is the same type of player."
Now his name gets announced on a regular basis when Ajax introduces it's starting eleven. Bruce Arena clearly sees him as an integral part of the U.S. plans for World Cup 2002. The fear of injury keeps him sharp. Focused. And when he's healthy, J-O-B (as he is often referred to) shows where his seven years have got him. He justifies the hope that so many have placed in him for so long. He's finally standing up.
Potential to kinetic. John O'Brien. In motion.
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