Sunday, March 17, 2002

Progress Report: John O'Brien

From the desk of the Publisher
Jim McGough
March 17, 2002

This year's Ajax USA delegation was able to observe John O'Brien several times during our March trip to Amsterdam. We saw him play the entirety of two league games, vs. Feyenoord on March 3rd and vs. De Graafschaap on the 10th, as well as a very enlightening session of first-team training on the 6th. Altogether, I formed a very clear impression of the young American's much-improved standing within the club.

Three-quarters of the way through his fourth season with the first team of Ajax, O'Brien is no longer a 'fringe' player for the Amsterdam team. He's not on the bubble; he is one of the core set of players around which Koeman is building the team for each game. That's quite an achievement, considering Koeman's apparent slight regard for the young American when he assumed control of the team from Co Adriaanse in December of 2001.

In Koeman's very first game in charge on December 04, O'Brien replaced Richard Knopper in the 64th minute. One week later, in the Amstel Cup quarter-finals, O'Brien replaced Knopper at half time. In the next two matches, on December 15 and 19, O'Brien played the entire game in midfield. It seemed that Koeman was being won over by O'Brien's utilitarian play.

Ajax training session; O'Brien is in center at back, behind Andre Bergdølmo.

But O'Brien was also part of an ineffectual midfied a week later in Utrecht, where Ajax sustained their last loss this season to date. It was also the final match before the Winter break, during which Koeman may have had second thoughts about the American's role in his midfield. O'Brien did not appear in Ajax's opening match of the second half of the season, a tepid 0-1 victory at Den Bosch.

However, O'Brien returned to the Ajax midfield for one of the strangest matches of the year, a 1-3 victory at Willem II. If Koeman really did have a crisis of confidence in the American, it seems to have passed quickly. In the subsequent match, a very important Amstel Cup quarter-final against a tough Groningen side, he selected O'Brien for his midfield in favor of a healthy Knopper. O'Brien has started every match since, and finished all but one. The exception: He was substituted for a third attacker late in the Fortuna Sittard match on 27 February, as Ajax scrambled unsuccessfully to salvage the full three points against the league's worst team.

"I'm very happy about John O'Brien," Koeman recently told Ajax USA. "When I came (to Ajax), he was playing in the midfield. In the last few weeks, he's played in the defense. He played two games at right back, and he played last Sunday against Feyenoord on the left side (of defense). It's very nice for the coach that you can put a player in (so many) different positions. Not always good for the player, but for the coach it's okay."

Koeman echoed the sentiments of Co Adriaanse and other coaches of O'Brien through the years. The American's adaptability makes him extremely valuable to the team.

"He's tactically a very handy player. His biggest quality is that he can play with the right foot and with the left foot. That's very important."

O'Brien's stock is on the rise not only with Koeman, but also with the fans of Ajax. On the rare occasions when O'Brien steps up to take a corner kick, chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A!" often rumble through the Arena. His popularity stems from his work rate and his increasingly evident technical skills. Fans see that O'Brien fits well into the Ajax style of play, which relies on very quick decision-making and excellent vision of the field. A good Ajax player takes the necessary risks but makes few truly costly errors.

Ajax fans, who suffered one of the league's worst defenses last season, appreciate the American's tenacious and dependable defending. They're also beginning to enjoy his increasingly creative and attack-minded midfield play.

In the more relaxed atmosphere of a training session, he shows some extraordinary skills on the ball. O'Brien, who speaks perfect Dutch, also mixes effortlessly with the diverse squad of internationals. His teammates appreciate his enthusiasm and toughness as much as his coaches appreciate his flexibility and reliability as a position-player.

Ironically, it was a rare mistake by O'Brien -- allowing Leonardo too much space to control his errant first touch -- that led to Feyenoord's only goal in last week's 'Classic'.

The fact that O'Brien made this mistake, in the year's most crucial fixture, and yet was not overly criticized by either fans, his coach or the Dutch press -- the latter noted the error but made nothing more of it -- underscores the respect given him at present. He is generally admired as a solid, almost entirely mistake-free player.

O'Brien and goalkeeper Joey Didulica stand with Ajax USA group at training session.

The only criticism you hear often is that he's not sufficiently attack-minded, something O'Brien seems to be working hard to improve. Particularly in the second, less stressful, fixture v. De Graafschaap, O'Brien seemed especially willing to take defenders on one-v-one. You get the impression that if O'Brien had the mentality (should I say 'ego'?) of a pure attacking player, he would be very effective in both creating and scoring goals.

But it's the 'completeness' of O'Brien's game that has earned him so much respect at Ajax. Koeman noted: "I'm very happy with him, with his performance and how he does his job. He's a serious person. He's always giving 100%, and I think that's very good."

PS: It's also worth noting that John O'Brien went out of his way to introduce himself to the traveling American fans, and he also took time to stop and talk to some young children who were standing in the cold weather to watch the Ajax training sessions at the Arena. While other players tromped without notice past the fans outside the dressing room, O'Brien stopped to chat, take photographs, and sign autographs for anyone who asked. Ajax USA rewarded him with a treat from home: a box of genuine Thin Mints from the Girl Scouts of America. No word yet on whether O'Brien shared, or kept all the cookies for himself.

Receiving Girl Scout cookies, courtesy of Ajax USA.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.