How O'Brien caught World Cup feverPosted: Monday June 03, 2002 2:50 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
Steeped in soccer he is, but not because he's an American playing for a Dutch team. And it was not because of USA '94 that he first dreamed of playing in the World Cup.
U.S. midfielder John O'Brien left Southern California after his senior year in high school to test his abilities in Europe.
The World Cup was about to take place in the United States, but O'Brien had ambitions of playing in the globe's greatest sporting event, not watching it.
In any case, his indoctrination had come four years before.
"My club team coach and four or five other players went to Sweden to train and play tournaments for a small club," says O'Brien, "so we got to experience it first-hand."
"It" is World Cup fever infecting a nation. Sweden lost all three of its World Cup matches in 1990 but that hardly dampened the enthusiasm.
"It was great, really a lot of fun," said O'Brien. "That's where I learned what it was all about. The time before  I hadn't even been aware that the World Cup had been played."
After years of scrapping for playing time on the field and enduring anti-American prejudice off it, he has finally established a regular place for Ajax Amsterdam and in the U.S. national team.
"This is what I was working toward and I have to say it really motivated me when I saw what happened to the U.S. in 1998," he said in reference to the three straight losses in France.
Yet exactly where he will play for the U.S. at this World Cup is a topic of speculation. He has played on either side of midfield and the backline for Utrecht and Ajax; he's been a midfielder for the U.S.
Prior to Chris Armas' injury he'd been a central-ish player not out of place on the flanks. His new role was to be paired with Reyna to share offensive and defensive reponsibilities in a revamped 4-4-2 or 4-5-1.
Should Reyna's pulled quadriceps force him out of the lineup, O'Brien's new-new position could be-who knows?
Coach Bruce Arena might go back to his previous system with O'Brien in the Armas role or pair him with somebody else, perhaps Pablo Mastroeni. But he'll be out there somewhere.
"Johnny, like every player on the national team, has some special qualities," says Armas. "He's very crafty in tight situations. He's very confident and smooth on the ball. He's a good decision-maker and he has good vision."
The danger of leaving him alone in front of the back four is that his strongest tendency is to go forward. Still, he adds workrate and bite to a midfield that sometimes is guilty of passivity.
"I'm pretty versatile, so I guess that works in my favor," says O'Brien, who can circulate in midfield and is left-sided but sharp and quick with either foot. He can work or pass the ball out of pressure and will be required to do so regardless of where he and it link up.
"Bruce says I tend to play like a central midfielder even when I'm out wide, so with me and Claudio in the middle we can take turns moving forward and getting back."
Regardless, O'Brien has one overriding attribute that transcends positional nuances or tactical influences: He's blessed with all-around ability.
On a team heavy with specialists and role players that is a valued pedigree.
"He's a very good professional and be brings a lot of little things to the table that we desperately need," says defender Jeff Agoos, "an ability to hold the ball, an ability to be dangerous, an ability to defend well.
"You see the learning curve he's got coming from Holland to play with this team. He does the little things in games that add up to something big."
There's nothing bigger than the World Cup. Two years ago he played in the Olympic Games yet his greatest dream is upon him.
"I'm glad it's almost here," he says. "We're all anxious to start playing games again. I've waited a long time for this."
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.