Former U.S. national player John O'Brien scored one of the most memorable goals in U.S. World Cup history: a first strike against Portugal in 2002, which ignited a celebration and a run to the quarter-finals.
O'Brien grew up in Southern California, but trained in the elite Dutch Ajax academy as a teen and was called the best American player by Landon Donovan when the two were teammates. Take Two sits down with O'Brien to talk about his career in Europe and what's next for U.S. soccer.
Take us to that moment in 2002. What was it like to make that goal?
"There are so many levels to this story. For me, as a soccer professional, it was all about at the start of the game be cool, be collected, be smart and I think that’s what happened. I saw the ball come in. Brian McBride did a great job heading it towards the goalie.
"I noticed that my defender wasn’t really looking at me, he was looking at the ball, so I decided to sneak around to the back post and lo and behold the ball bounces up right in front of me, all I had to do was be cool and collected and slot it in. But as a U.S. soccer player and for U.S. soccer history, that goal means a lot more."
The U.S. went on to upset Portugal 3-2 in that game and some have called it a turning point for U.S. soccer.
"Yeah, I could see that. I think since then, at the World Cup level, the country has been more involved. I think the product we’ve put on the field as a country has continually improved, so I could see that as a turning point. But I think every four years is a turning point as well. This World Cup will mean very different things and new things and good things for the sport in this country."
When was the first time you remember picking up a soccer ball and why soccer? Why not American football or basketball?
"I remember in baseball, particularly, being a little bit bored, standing in the outfield, or I think I was second baseman, actually, waiting for the ball. Soccer was this activity where you were constantly involved and it was this open field with not many rules. Of course, there’s the rule don’t use your hands. But the field’s open, you can run where you want and you can be active. So I think the freedom of the game was really exciting to me."
And what was it like going from there to the elite Dutch academy Ajax, when you were just 16?
"I remember arriving there and the kids on my team were like, wait, an American soccer player? It’s a sport that women do in the states – because the women’s team had had such success in the States before then. And I remember them being, like, why would you leave Los Angeles?"
You were the only American?
"Yes, I was the only American on the team."
And how were you chosen, isn’t it a very competitive process?
"It is. I had a coach who knew someone in the Dutch football federation. He arranged that I could train with Ajax. After I trained, they thought I was a good player, but I was too young at that point, I was 14. So when I was 16 I got to go back over and try out and it was kind of something new. The club wasn’t used to bringing in players who were youth players from foreign countries. But I was one of the first ones at the club to be in the youth program from a foreign country and it worked out really well for me."
Did they approach the soccer training differently from what you were used to in the U.S.?
"Absolutely. It was much more intense. The best players from the area were on that team. It was very much a structure to every training, how it was going to look. And very much a system of how they wanted you to play, so that was very different."
You’ve played with some of the best players that the U.S. has produced – Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna – how does the current crop of players compare?
"Players around the world are always getting better. I look at the national team now and I really enjoy Michael Bradley play, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan – when he was playing, a very skilled player. So I think the players are getting better. As a country and as a team, I think we still need to leap over these other teams because everyone in the world is getting better so how do we magnify that and get better quicker?"
So where do you see the U.S. team going from here?
"We’ve set up some really good youth development structure which will really help develop skilled players with a good mindset and a good know-how of how to strategically play the game. I think it’s going to take time to really nurture these players and to get them to the level where we are competitive to win a World Cup."