1999 is likely to be John O'Brien's bust-out year...
After missing the call-up to France '98 by the narrowest of margins, the talented young midfielder from Playa Del Rey, California is now the name on everyone's lips when discussing the future of US soccer. Despite his age (21), O'Brien's professional accomplishments are rivaled only by Kasey Keller in the English Premiership.
O'Brien is currently under contract to Ajax, but on loan to FC Utrecht, where he finished the first half of the season as the top-ranked rookie in the Dutch First Division, a league widely recognized as a training ground for the world's top talent.
We last spoke with John O'Brien three years ago, when he was a member of the US Under-20 squad preparing for the Youth World Cup in Malaysia. In another three years, he's likely to have more than a dozen caps with the full national team, having played a prominent role in the United States' World Cup 2002 qualification efforts. He might be playing for Utrecht, Ajax, or any of a number of top European clubs.
However, five years living on his own in Holland have taught this smart young man how to train, act and think like a professional. And he knows above all to take nothing for granted. He won't predict his future with the US National team, and he won't comment on the merits of his fellow "classmates" in new US coach Bruce Arena's youth movement. It wouldn't be professional, a word which sums up O'Brien's approach to the game that has replaced his normal life.
In the meantime, O'Brien is enjoying his time back home while the Dutch league takes its annual winter break. He's spent the past few weeks visiting friends and family up and down the California coast and occasionally hitting the beach. This week, he's back on the job, as it were, training with the US national team in Orlando.
Before he left for Florida, we spoke with John again at the Arco center, where he'd been working out with the U-23's.
INTERVIEW ON 9 JANUARY, 1999...
AUSA: First let me ask you about your loan to Utrecht. I understand Jan Wouters (currently head coach of Ajax) played an instrumental role in this move. What was his involvement, exactly?
O'BRIEN: He always had good relations with Utrecht because he played there for many years, and he was actually an assistant coach there before he came to Ajax to coach the second team. So he had good relations with the coaches on both clubs. Jan Wouters wanted me to sign on with Ajax, and we talked about the first team and how many players there were playing my position, and he recommended the move to Utrecht. He'd probably been talking to the staff at Utrecht, and they'd probably seen me play, too, and I guess that's how I ended up there.
AUSA: How would you describe your relationship with your current coach at Utrecht, Marc Wotte?
O'BRIEN: He's a good guy, as well as a good coach. I enjoy working for him, with him. (Laughs) Relationships with coaches are always kind of hard to talk about.
AUSA: Wotte has said that the way you play the game is more European. What do you think he meant by that?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, that's been told to me before, at Ajax. The youth coaches there told me that I was becoming more like a European player. I think what they mean is that, in their eyes, I'm like a Dutch player because I control the ball and pass it around. They might have seen a big difference in the way I used to play and the way I play now. I think I always had it in me, but maybe I've matured and adapted.
AUSA: Do you think American players tend to be more direct?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, they do tend to be more direct, with the ball and without the ball, kicking it forward sometimes, that's true.
AUSA: What can you say about the difference between Ajax and Utrecht, in terms of training or attitude or personalities?
O'BRIEN: Well, a lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm playing on the first team now. It's different from being a reserve player because they (Ajax reserves) were more concerned with developing you as an athlete than with the results. I mean, you're always concerned with the games; you want to win the games and you want to prove yourself. But at the same time, the practices weren't just for the games. They were also to improve yourself. On the first team, everything is just directed at getting points. Everything is about Sunday. You train for Sunday, you play for Sunday.
AUSA: What's your role or position with Utrecht now?
O'BRIEN: We play two defensive midfielders, and I'm one of them.
AUSA: Is that a position you're suited for? Are you comfortable there?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, that's where I like playing the most. When I first went there, they were going to put me at left fullback, and I played there a couple times in the pre-season. But they liked me at defensive midfield, so I ended up playing there.
AUSA: So how did a defensive midfielder score such a spectacular goal against Ajax (on September 13, '98)?
O'BRIEN: Well, with two defensive midfielders, there are a lot of times where one of us can go forward and the other one has to hold back. In that game, we were down 1-0 just befoe halftime, and there was a little scramble for the ball on the right side of midfield around the midline. I picked it up out of that and started dribbling forward. The defender was kind of backing off me because there was some guys on our team making runs, and I took it over to the center of the field. Michael Mols was about to make a run inside, and I think the keeper, Edwin van der Sar, thought I was gonna pass to him. But I took a shot and the ball swerved and caught him off guard, and it was in the back of the net.
AUSA: Is that your greatest moment on a soccer field?
O'BRIEN: It's the most thrilling because of the crowd and the circumstances. It pumps you up, definitely.
AUSA: And you'll play in front of a bigger crowd in May, in the Arena. (Utrecht plays Ajax in Amsterdam on May 7.)
O'BRIEN: Yeah, I'm looking forward to that.
AUSA: What do the fans in Utrecht think of you?
O'BRIEN: Well, I think they see me as a hard worker in defensive midfield who can play the ball around and set things up. I think they like me. I always hear from them that I shouldn't go back to Ajax. It's partly because I'm on loan. There's a big rivalry between Utrecht and Ajax, maybe more on the part of Utrecht than Ajax.
AUSA: If Michael Mols goes to Ajax, how might that affect your future? There's a rumor that you might be the subject of a trade which sends Mols to Ajax and transfers you to Utrecht.
O'BRIEN: I see it as two separate things, but I don't know if Utrecht and Ajax do.
AUSA: Would you like to go back to Ajax?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, I mean, as a sportsman you always want to improve and move up. I played for Ajax for four years, so I do have some connection with the club. I'd like to play in Europe (European competitions such as the Champions League and UEFA Cup).
AUSA: Do you consider yourself an Ajax fan?
O'BRIEN: Well, when I watch the games in Holland, I watch out especially for Ajax. I like watching them, but it's also because I know a lot of the players. I'm always curious as to what's going to happen with them because I'm owned by them.
AUSA: Do you think there's any likelihood that you may one day end up playing in the United States?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, there's a likelihood. I like where I'm from, Los Angeles. I like different areas of the U.S. That always plays a role. It looks like the MLS is doing well, and if it continues to improve... Yeah, I don't see why not.
AUSA: Are the players in Europe aware of MLS? Is there any sense of a reputation or a level of quality associated with it?
O'BRIEN: I don't think they've seen (MLS) much, so I don't think they know what the quality is. But they're interested in it. A lot of the guys on the club have been to America before, and they're interested in the American sports scene, the whole American lifestyle. I always get a lot of questions about it. They want to know what the money's like, if they were going to move over here. Some of the players are interested in doing that, eventually.
AUSA: So right now you're training with the U-23's, even though you've been named to the national team. Are you, at this point, an "automatic" selection for the Under-23 team?
O'BRIEN: Well, you don't know if you're gonna be part of the (U23) group until qualifications for the Olympics come around, but being a member of the National team does help. I'm hoping to play in the Olympics. We have to qualify next Spring, which is a tough task.
AUSA: You're getting a lot of media attention these days. USA Today ran a story on your emergence in Utrecht, and ESPN never misses a chance to show your goal against Ajax. And I know Voetball International in the Netherlands writes about you a lot, and has rated you at the top of the class among rookies. Does it concern you that people might get high expectations? Do you ever worry about hype?
O'BRIEN: People do get high expectations, but it doesn't concern me too much because I just go out and play and try to improve. But it's true that people can get let down if (the media) build me up too high. It's always nicer if they don't expect anything from you, and all of a sudden you're doing great, you know?
AUSA: Were you surprised when you didn't get named to go to France? I think I recall that you didn't know until the last minute whether or not you were going to get to go.
O'BRIEN: No, that's not really true. I got invited (to train with the US team) in May, which was a month-long training camp leading up to the WC. Steve Sampson had told me I was there as a reserve. So, there's 24 players there, and 22 were going to France. My job was just to play as well as I could, and then if injuries happened, or if someone didn't live up to expectations, then he might have taken me. So I wouldn't say it was much of a surprise.
AUSA: Sampson has since said that he should've taken you. Does that surprise you?
O'BRIEN: I read that somewhere, yeah. He stated a few times that he wanted to take young players. In my opinion, I couldn't have done more than I did to get there, but as circumstances had it, it didn't work out. I had some untimely injuries.
AUSA: You were injured, I think, right before the Sweden friendly.
O'BRIEN: Yeah, that's right. That was in January. I'd just started playing well with the national team, and I got injured, right then. It really took me a while to recover from that... It's something I don't enjoy reading, really, (Sampson) saying he should've taken me. I was kind of disappointed that he said it. You just don't want to read about that, because I think there's a good chance I could have gone. But at the same time, from his perspective, I don't blame him for not taking me, at all.
AUSA: Now you are on the US team, and it's likely you'll be there for a while. If you had to give yourself a strategic or tactical role on the field, what would you like that to be?
O'BRIEN: Well, the role I'm playing now with Utrecht is what I enjoy doing. A defensive midfield role where you're kind of organizing the defense a bit, as well as creating things from an offensive standpoint, spreading the ball around and setting things up.
AUSA: You're a product of both American and European youth development, with Ajax and, before that, with AGSS in Los Angeles. What do you think it'll take to increase the chances of developing quality players in America?
O'BRIEN: If you look at the European system, it seems like they've got it down pretty well. But you have to take some elements and then adjust it to certain things in America. I mean, every parent here wants his kid to go to college, whereas over in Holland that's not the case, if the kid has a chance to turn professional.
AUSA: So how do you accomodate the desire for a college education with the need to train somebody in the European style, with the sort of full-time professional-experience teams like Ajax employ?
O'BRIEN: Well I don't think playing in the NCAA will improve the current level of play. I think it's gonna have to go the other way, where professional clubs are starting to do things like Project 40, which allows the younger players to go to school part time while they're training (with the clubs).
AUSA: There have been some interesting changes in the Netherlands and in Eurpope generally, in terms of players' freedom to escape contracts and move around from club to club. Do you think the new freedoms for players pose any danger to the clubs, especially to institutions like the youth academy at Ajax?
O'BRIEN: Well, the de Boers had a players' contract which they thought they could get out of, but it turned out they couldn't. I think that was kind of a turning point. The clubs are probably going to start signing young players to long-term contracts so they can't leave. The players will have a guarantee of money for a long period of time, which is good for them, and they won't be able to just leave right away if they get a better offer, which is good for the club.
AUSA: One more, very serious, question. Do you miss the beach? Are you getting any surfing in on this vacation?
O'BRIEN: I've been down to the beach a lot, but I didn't do any surfing. I do miss the weather, the warm water, yeah. In Holland, the beach is totally different. Most of the year it's freezing out, but even in summertime its different. There are no waves or anything, and no recreation in the water. Just a lot of sunbathing and drinking.
Sounds like hell. ;-)