Battling back from injuries
John O'Brien could probably become a physical therapist after his soccer career is over without even spending a day in college. Having sustained so many different types of injuries over the past three years, the 27-year-old midfielder has spent more mornings and afternoons working out under the direction of trainers and therapists than coaches.
Prior to our interview on Friday evening, O'Brien had just finished working out at the Home Depot Center, and was coming off a two-a-day session the day before. Now that he's made significant progress in strengthening his Achilles and hamstrings that have hampered him for so long, Bruce Arena has called him back into the U.S. national team. O'Brien hopes of making only his second appearance with the side since the 2002 World Cup.
"We're hopeful that we can get him involved in the England game (May 28), the qualifiers (June 4 versus Costa Rica and June 8 versus Panama) and the Gold Cup (in mid-July),"Arena said to USA Today last week. "He's not going to be able to play 90 minutes, but we're hopeful he can help us."
When fully healthy, there are few players in the U.S. that exhibit the type of technical and tactical abilities that O'Brien possesses. His vision of the game is on the same type of level of a Claudio Reyna, and his all-around talent and versatility is on par with Landon Donovan.
Simply put, the Playa del Rey, Calif., native is the type of player that changes the complexion of the game when he's on the field. As much progress as the U.S. has made since the World Cup, there's an element missing without O'Brien. This makes his inclusion in the latest roster all the more reason for American fans to be optimistic about the side's chances in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. It also bodes well for a continuing evolution from a side that's always competitive into a true powerhouse.
O'Brien talked about leaving Ajax to play for Dutch side ADO Den Haag, his new-wave rehabilitation, and the likelihood that he'll continue his career as a midfielder for both club and country rather than as an outside back during our lengthy interview.
ESPN.com: You've been back in California rehabbing your hamstring since the winter, but what has your more recent training entailed?
John O'Brien: I'm not training twice every day, but there was a good period where I'd do soccer training in the morning with the (Los Angeles) Galaxy -- they gave me the opportunity to do that -- and then in the afternoons I'd be doing weights. On the days I wasn't with the Galaxy in the morning, I'd be working on conditioning.
ESPN.com: Who was helping you with this?
O'Brien: I've been working out with Athletes Performance. Their big thing is new movements for my body, so I've been trying some new things. I'd do their movement exercises and then go on to either conditioning or weights depending on the day.
ESPN.com: Are the new movements more for preventative purposes or to simply alleviate discomfort in the areas of your body you've injured in the past?
O'Brien: It's both. It's just getting certain patterns down that are more efficient for your body. The weights are to lock those patterns in, and to get stronger in the right way.
ESPN.com: How different has this sort of training been than what you experienced at Ajax?
O'Brien: This is way different. There've been times when I've worked with different therapists that try and coach different movements for me along with general weights. But this is just different. The biggest approach is for me to try and move differently, and then using different exercises to try and help me get the movements down. I've been doing a lot better weight training to help me with this than I ever did before.
ESPN.com: It almost sounds like there is some pilates or yoga involved.
O'Brien: I don't know because I've never done pilates and I've only done yoga once or twice. This is more postural and about core stability, which I believe is what pilates helps with too. It's all about keeping your back and stomach locked in a good position and using your hips well to move.
I didn't have good stability through my midsection, so a lot of times I'd using my hamstrings or my back rather than push through my butt. The other thing is casting. When I'd run, a lot of the time I'd push my leg out far and use it to break, and then push with it. So I wasn't hitting down at the right angle when I was running. It was causing my hamstrings to have a lot of stress.
ESPN.com: It sounds as though you are running differently now then. Would someone be able to tell the difference when they watch you the next time you play for the U.S.?
O'Brien: Most fans won't notice too much, I'm guessing. My brother has noticed, though. He taped a bit of my training and there was one moment when he stopped it and said, 'That looks kind of different there.' And it did. So if you compare my old style with how I run now on tape, there's definitely a difference, but I don't think many fans will see it.
ESPN.com: It seems like you're feeling good these days. Are you feeling like your old self again?
O'Brien: Yeah. I think everything I did will help a lot. With my old self, even the days when I was fully healthy, my mechanics were not as good as it is now. I just haven't played a lot of soccer, so I need to start getting that going.
ESPN.com: When you've played with the Galaxy, has it been more a case of being part of the warmup and maybe some of the functional training than actually playing the game? Are you jumping in during 8 v. 8 keep-away or anything like that?
O'Brien: A little bit. The past few weeks they have been able to use me however they want. There have been times when Steve (Sampson) wants to work just with his players, so I'll just get in on the warmup and in some drills. But there have been other times when I've done a little 11 on 11.
ESPN.com: You're starting to get a little bit of the reward by actually playing, but what is it like for you to just have to rehab most of the time? Having had to recover from injuries for so long, what gets you through on a daily basis?
O'Brien: There have been two different phases. When I was back in Holland with Ajax, I'd just try and clear my head before every day and just try and work hard. Every time you work hard, you get a little bit of confidence and feel good about yourself.
Since I've been here, it's been easier since I'm learning all this new stuff about my body. It's been inspirational for me, so it hasn't been hard to motivation. Actually, I wake up excited to go through the workouts since it's different than what I've been doing the past two years, which obviously didn't work out all that great for me. I'm motivated now to transfer it all into playing soccer. That's what I do it all for.
ESPN.com: In saying that, how hard is it to now not be with Ajax for the first time in your career? Is it still hard to think back to how it happened back in February?
O'Brien: No, it's not hard. Basically, I got out of Ajax on my own will. I wanted to get back here and try this program. But, yeah, it's weird to think about next year and driving down to The Hague and even playing against Ajax. It'll seem weird to do that.
It's just something I had to do, I guess. And I'm glad I made the choice.
ESPN.com: Before signing with your new club, did you look outside of Holland at all?
O'Brien: It was kind of a last minute sort of thing that my agent managed to put together. If I would have left Holland, it would have been hard for me to get back in since I would've had to re-apply for a work permit. So he got me a one-year contract with The Hague. I'm open to playing somewhere else in Europe, for sure. But my priority right now is just getting back on the field and enjoying the sport again. The Hague is going to give me a good opportunity to do that.
ESPN.com: You were always the lone American over there that people back here in the States watched from afar and looked for updates on. Now there's Cory Gibbs at Feyenoord and DaMarcus Beasley at PSV. What's it been like to watch those younger players progress like they have in Holland?
O'Brien: It's been really cool to see. Beasley went over to a team that has done really well and everyone knows. The past few years they've been in such good form. To see Beasley step in to that team so effortlessly and contribute right away has been great. It's good to see them both doing well.
ESPN.com: Obviously, Bruce Arena has been in contact with you this spring and you'll be joining the team this weekend, but what has the contact been like with him over the past few years while you were injured?
O'Brien: It's been good. Bruce is always curious as to how things are going. He always asks me when I can contribute to the national team. With this chance, he's basically giving me an opportunity to play with the team at an important time even though I haven't been with them in a long time. I may even have a chance to get into some games, so it is a relationship that has been really good for me.
ESPN.com: Since you last played with the national team (during a 2-0 victory over Venezuela on March 29, 2003), there have been a lot of young players who have come in and contributed. What's your take on guys like Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey, to name a few?
O'Brien: The national team has changed since the last World Cup, and that's the way it's supposed to be. You're supposed to get new guys in there to challenge for spots and to create a new competitive environment. It's good to see some of the guys coming up. There are still so many of the guys that I know and have played with, but I'm always encouraged by the young guys and their performance.
ESPN.com: Are there any players who have stood out to you, in particular?
O'Brien: It's been good to see Steve Cherundolo do well when given an opportunity. He was my roommate during the World Cup, and he hurt his knee while there, which was a bummer for him. Steve has been doing so well in Germany, so he's earned a spot and has been contributing. Eddie Johnson is doing so much for that team up top, and scoring some amazing goals. It's been fun to see.
ESPN.com: Are you able to see some of the newer faces on the national team by watching them play in MLS?
O'Brien: Yeah, I follow it a little bit. It's mostly from watching online rather than from live action. A lot of it is from watching them with the national team games that I've managed to see.
ESPN.com: With so many new players, there is increased competitiveness at many of the positions. One of your best attributes has always been your versatility. Not to say that you won't have any quickness or lack of speed on your return, but have your injuries changed that at all, as far as what positions you think you're able to play?
O'Brien: In terms of my injuries affecting my positions I play and what I'll be able to do, I don't think that'll be the case at all. After all this training and getting a lot of soccer in, I think I'm going to be just as versatile as I was before, if not even more.
I see myself playing in the midfield since I've had most of my success there with the national team. That's also where I'll be playing with my club team next year. That's also where I like to play the most and the spot where I think I can contribute the most
ESPN.com: Coming up next for the U.S. is that match against England next weekend. It'd be better if they had their A-squad with them, but it still has to be a thrill to take them on considering the last match was back in 1994.
O'Brien: I'm looking forward to this game because there are so many of our guys who play over in England. They'll be pumped up for the game because they want something to be abler to talk about when they go back to the Premier League. It's definitely going to be an exciting game.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.