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.”
Touching tributes poured in on social media from all corners of the soccer community as news spread that Hall of Fame coach Sigi Schmid had passed away on Christmas Day 2018. And amid the sadness shared by so many who knew him, the messages also provided the rest of us a glimpse into the kind of man that Sigi was, and reminded everyone of the influence Sigi had on the American soccer landscape.
For newer fans of the game, Sigi will be remembered as one of the greatest of MLS coaches, leading the Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy to multiple trophies each. Older fans may recall the soccer factory he created while coaching UCLA to numerous NCAA Championships in the 1980 and ‘90s, churning out future U.S. Soccer legends like Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri, Joe Max-Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis and Chris Henderson, among others.
It’s also important to highlight the impact he had with two teams he coached for shorter time frames: the U.S. U-20 MNTs that participated in the 1999 and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championships, each time advancing to the knockout stage while facing the likes of Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Seven players from those U-20 teams would go on to represent the MNT at senior FIFA World Cups, while many others also had solid pro careers. And if not for Schmid, we may never have known some of those players. We caught up with a few from each team:
1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup Championship:
While at UCLA, Sigi also assisted the MNT at 1994 FIFA World Cup and coached the following year’s Pan-American Games. In 1997, he was also coaching the U-18 MNT when he went to scout a player who had just played in the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship and was playing for his high school in Southern California. However, as Carlos Bocanegra tells it, there was a mistake on the published schedule and the team that Sigi went to see was not playing. Sigi stuck around anyway, and watched the promising football wide receiver, Bocanegra, play soccer for his Alta Loma High School.
“I think about that all the time,” the two-time World Cup veteran Bocanegra told ussoccer.com this week. “That was my break. That was my chance. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to take that opportunity. That’s how I was able to kick-start my soccer career – pure coincidence that he was watching my game that got mixed up and he saw me play.”
Schmid invited Bocanegra, a junior at the time, to a U-18 camp. The next year he continued his pursuit of the talented defender and recruited Bocanegra to join him at UCLA. Their bond strengthened when Schmid took over the U-20 MNT and made Bocanegra a key member of the USA’s 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship side in Nigeria.
That team also included fellow future senior World Cup players Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Nick Rimando and Chris Albright, as well as long-time pros Danny Califf, Nick Garcia, Cory Gibbs, John Thorrington and Taylor Twellman, who became one of the most prolific American goalscorers in the pro ranks.
“That World Cup, playing with Sigi, had a massive impact on me and ultimately convinced me that I needed to go pro,” said Twellman, who at the time was also contemplating if his future would be in baseball, where he also excelled.
At the tournament, the USA defeated an England side that featured Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch, fell to Shinji Ono’s Japan, and defeated Cameroon in group play before falling by a score of 3-2 in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Spain that included Iker Casillas and Xavi.
In the lead up to that tournament, Sigi broke from the past and brought the team overseas for training, including to Morocco for two games and on a two-week fitness camp in Germany, where the team stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.
Bocanegra in action vs. Argentina in 2003, a few short years after graduating from Schmid's tutelage.
“He really tried to give us good experiences that he thought would help us later in our career,” said Bocanegra. “He always tried to set trips up around where we could watch games at a higher level and get experiences to challenge ourselves in different ways than was maybe common practice. He always wanted the best for the group and to give us the best experiences to try to better ourselves, not only on the field but in life and to become well-rounded in the game.”
As a reward for the hard work in Germany, Sigi brought the U20s to France to attend the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Germany.
“Sigi had such a feel for the game of soccer, domestically and globally,” said Chris Albright. “He always communicated that we were putting on our nations colors and flag, representing the country. He drilled that in us that this was not to take it for granted, that it was not to be taken lightly.”
Like Bocanegra, Sigi introduced Albright to the National Team scene. Later he helped pick him up when things were not going well at D.C., trading for him in LA. At the suggestion of then MNT coach Bruce Arena, Sigi helped convert Albright from a forward into a defender, a move that later landed Chris on the 2006 World Cup team.
“He had an excellent ability to teach multiple positions; he could make me a better forward, wide midfielder, defender,” Albright said. “He could teach principles of different positions to help each player grow, and that teaching element in developing us at that time was unique.”
Twellman scored four goals in the tournament, good for third overall, thus becoming the first American to capture a scoring award (Bronze Boot) in a FIFA World Youth Championship.
Twellman accepts the Bronze Boot alongside then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia.
“When people talk about Sigi, they talk about his love of the game,” Twellman said, who a few months later would leave Maryland to sign with 1860 Munich in Germany. “But he was also a gentleman and was kind off the field. Every single one of us on that team, if we saw Sigi 3-4-5-10 years down the road…he always watched our games, even when he was not our coach. He was always willing to talk to us, showed interested in us, asked us about our lives.”
Now the Technical Director of MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, Bocanegra draws from those early experiences under Schmid.
“Even though we were young, he really tried to instill the professionalism in us,” Bocanegra said. “The detail, structure, organization – challenging us. He always made time to make people feel important. He never stopped, through college, through pros, was always available. He was pretty special.”
2005 Under-20 World Youth Championship
A week after that 1999 U-20 tournament came to an end for the USA, Sigi also began his pro career, taking the helm of his hometown LA Galaxy for the next five seasons.
He returned to coach the U-20 MNT in October 2014, having only a couple months to scout and prep players for January’s U-20 Concacaf Championship.
Two years earlier, Schmid’s Galaxy had eliminated Kansas City and veteran National Team player Peter Vermes from the MLS Cup Playoffs. After the game, Vermes recalled this week, Schmid approached him and told him he’d like to have him on his staff one day.
Fast-forward to fall 2014, a since-retired Vermes called Sigi and reminded him of that conversation. Schmid held true and invited Vermes to a three-week U-20 camp. After a week of evaluating, Schmid told Vermes he had earned one of the assistant coach positions.
“It was a great opportunity for me just to be around somebody like him with as much knowledge and experience that he had,” Vermes said, who enters the 2019 season as the longest tenured MLS coach, having taken the reigns of Sporting KC in 2009. “I already knew I wanted to coach for a long time, but what those experiences give you is like anything – when you first want to do something, you’re excited, you’re ambitious, you’re motivated, you’re all those things. But sometimes you lack the confidence. For me, Sigi gave me a direction that I felt comfortable with because I had gotten a chance to see a lot of different things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get that chance to be with him and spend all that time, and the preparation, and everything. It was a great experience.”
Schmid’s first friendly was in November in Ft. Lauderdale. Due to College Cup, some would-be regulars were not available, so Schmid called in four new players, including UCLA speedster Marvell Wynne, who had never been called to any YNT camp before.
“I think I should have been more in the moment with everything that happened,” Wynne admits. “When I got called in I remember thinking ‘these guys are way better than me.’ But Sigi kept calling me back. When he said I made the team, I was definitely shocked.”
For a mid-December camp Schmid called in 30 players, including UCLA walk-on midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who also had never been on any Youth National Team. Like Wynne, Feilhaber also made a formidable impression.
Wynne and Feilhaber were instrumental in helping the USA qualify for the
2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship three weeks later.
Let’s back up for a second. Sigi’s sons also played college soccer in the LA area around that era. And, family man that he was, he would always attend their games, first Kurt’s at UCLA, and later Kyle’s at UC-Irvine.
“It’s what jump-started my entire career,” said newly retired 12-year pro Brad Evans. “The only reason I made that U-20 team is because Kyle Schmid transferred to UC Irvine. Without Kyle transferring there was absolutely no reason for Sigi to come watch UCI play.”
Schmid had spotted Evans that fall at UCI, but it wasn’t until after the U-20s had qualified for the World Cup that he called in the versatile player to his first National Team camp at any level.
Vermes explained how Sigi gave the preliminary roster to rest of the coaching staff and told them that they could each make a case for one player to either be replaced or be added.
“A lot of guys in that position would never consult the rest of staff,” Vermes said. “I thought that showed a lot of security and confidence on his part, to know what his decisions were but also want to know what his staff’s decisions were, and ultimately to make the best decision. There’s no doubt that that has helped me, and I would say that a lot of the players that were identified are players that are still playing or who had great careers because they were identified correctly.”
Wynne, Feilhaber and Evans were on the final 21-player roster, along with Jonathan Spector, Sacha Kljestan, Lee Nguyen, Freddy Adu, Chad Barret and Eddie Gaven, among others who also had solid pro careers.
The team shocked the world in the tournament opener, defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a Barrett goal assisted by Wynne. It would be the only loss and shutout suffered by the South Americans, who won their next six matches en route the lifting the championship trophy with future international stars Sergio Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi.
Chad Barrett, who would go on to play professionally under Schmid in MLS, scored the game-winner vs. Argentina at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.
The 20s then played Germany to a scoreless draw and defeated Egypt 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Italy in the Round of 16. The experience and exposure provided opportunities to a number of players.
Feilhaber would soon sign with Hamburg, and later would score one of the best goals of the USA’s rivalry against Mexico, helping the MNT win the 2007 Gold Cup. And despite interest from international clubs, Wynne and Evans returned to school. Wynne became the top pick in the next MLS SuperDraft and Evans was selected 15th overall the following year by Columbus’s new coach, Sigi Schmid.
“He means more than I can really describe,” Feilhaber said, who along with Spector also made the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster. “Getting that opportunity with the 20s led to everything else in my life. I have no idea if I would have become a pro. I know I would not have been as successful financially, [and] going to Europe that early helped me immensely as a player. I don’t know if I would have ever played on the National Team let alone in a World Cup. I’m really grateful for Sigi having that keen eye and for giving me that opportunity.”
Sigi not only gave Evans his international debut and professional debut but would also bring him to Seattle on their way to spending 10 pro seasons together.
“He was the pivot for me in my entire career,” Evans said. “You have youth coaches, parents, but if you want to talk about the person who I’m able to talk about 12 years later and say I played professionally because of them…yes, it comes from within, but you have to have someone who pushes you and really believed in you, and Sigi was the guy for me.”
Sigi’s memorial took place on Friday, Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
In March 2017, after more than 300 MLS games and having also represented the USA in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, Wynne’s career came to an end after undergoing a heart procedure.
When he came to from the operation, one of the first voicemails he listened to was from Sigi Schmid.
“Sigi was the reason I became a pro,” Wynne said. “He got me on to the scene, kept me there, had confidence in me and he kept me going. In terms of coaching, it was more, ‘get the basics right and perfect them.’ He was the first one to hammer that home, and if you ever saw my career, it was basic.”
A reflective Wynne made a special trip to an LA Galaxy game last year to meet up with his former coach.
“We talked about my heart situation, and caught up about everything,” Wynne said. “And I told him, ‘you’re the reason I went pro.’ I was able to tell him face to face, but I hoped he knew.”
“Yea, the opportunity, experience and all those other things were great, but the best thing for me, to be honest, was that he and I became friends after that 2005 Youth Championship,” Vermes said. “We always, always talked and kept in touch and spent time with each other. We had a very good relationship.”
“I sense that he knew what he meant to me,” Feilhaber said. “The way that we spoke was not in a way that most coaches to ex-players do. We were friends - he understood how much of an influence he had on me. We had respect for each other, and I’m going to miss him a lot, but it’s so important to have these memories about him.”
“We talk about a coaching tree a lot, but Sigi’s got the player tree, the coaching tree, the soccer tree really,” Bocanegra said. “So many people spiraled off the opportunities he gave them. Through soccer he gave so many people their start. But the biggest part that everybody remembers is that he cared about each and every person. He wanted to get the best out of them, and did not give up. He would give second chances, third chances - if you were his guys, and you worked for him he was going to his damndest to get the best out of you and make you a better player or person in general.”
“When I think back on it, especially the last couple of weeks, we always talked about getting the ‘Sigi shirt-tug,’” Evans reminisced. “Once he got a hold of your shirt and put his arm around you, there was no getting away from it. But I remember him being very honest with me in everything. He never blew smoke up my tail or thought that I was better or worse than I was. He always believed in me. We really trusted each other when it came to soccer and had an unspoken relationship that just worked. It’s something that I’ll cherish and remember forever.”Read more