The long road home
At the press conference announcing his signing with Major League Soccer's Chivas USA, John O'Brien was asked to summarize his history of injuries.
"I don't know if I want to do that," he said darkly. "It brings back bad memories."
"I've had hamstring and Achilles problems," he explained. "After I was here [for rehab], it seemed the hamstring and Achilles problems had cleared up. Unfortunately, I then injured my groin."
That's the capsule account of situation. Understandably, O'Brien did not care to dwell on the years of time lost to the injuries and the difficulties involved with diagnosing and treating the problems he has had to deal with. His career has been curtailed due to his many hurts, though he has shone brightly when he had the opportunity to do so.
Long before Landon Donovan or Freddy Adu, John O'Brien was a success story of American soccer. Only sixteen when he was plucked from the ranks of Southern California kids who have the luxury of playing outdoor soccer all year long, he traveled to Holland, the country many consider unparalleled for youth development in the sport. It was the famed Dutch team, Ajax Amsterdam, which signed him.
After a successful loan spell with FC Utrecht, O'Brien went on to appear in 84 official matches for the Ajax, helping them to league and cup titles and appearing in Champions League matches for the team.
His national team record was stellar as well, as he represented the U.S. in the Olympic games, World Cup competition and regional championships such as Gold Cup.
Such a prodigious talent could normally be comfortable ensconced in Europe for some time, not signing with MLS.
However, O'Brien was released by Ajax and later ADO Den Haag, another Dutch team, after his physical issues again limited his time on the field.
Even as transfer possibilities pick up for U.S. talent, few American players have spent as many years abroad as O'Brien. His willingness to adapt to different cultures was evident at his signing announcement with the Mexican-owned team, where he took the initiative to prepare and deliver a statement in Spanish. He declared, with fairly credible Spanish pronunciation, his eagerness to perform well for his new club.
One of the local press assembled requested a Dutch version.
"Geen probleem (No problem)," O'Brien answered instantly, rattling off a stream of the language he'd learned flawlessly.
Yet for all his willingness to adapt and learn from the training he received in the Netherlands, he has rarely been able to present his skills. He has only around a hundred league appearances total, and less than thirty international caps for the national team.
His most successful year was in 2002, where he was a key figure for both Ajax (which won the league double that year) and the U.S. team (where he contributed a goal and an assist in the team's World Cup quarterfinal run). For O'Brien, it was to be an unprecedented healthy spell of time that created an enigmatic image of him as a player.
Even years later, the question of how much O'Brien, now twenty-eight, can contribute or how close he can come to that form of 2002 is unanswered. During the 2005 Gold Cup run of the U.S. team to the title, he was still working his way back into top condition.
A similar situation exists now.
"I've been training the last few days with Chivas, a full practice," detailed O'Brien. "It's going to take me a little while to get back to game speed and be able to go ninety minutes. Right now I have nothing hindering me in any way, so I'm continuing to build on that."
A glimpse of how far along O'Brien is in his recovery will be available in the national team match against Jamaica. Coach Bruce Arena named O'Brien to the roster for his first appearance this year. The game is expected to be the final one before Arena names his World Cup roster.
It's clear that a large part of the motivation of joining MLS was the chance to play and regain match fitness before the Cup. Though some speculate that his past exploits would ensure O'Brien a World Cup spot if he was even close to healthy, O'Brien himself was skeptical of such ideas.
"I don't think there's any locks," O'Brien said of Arena's roster. "I definitely have to continue gaining fitness and playing in games."
Chivas USA was only too happy to oblige him.
"John is a complete player," declared Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley. "He can play an attacking role in the midfield, he can play a defensive role. He's a two-way player. Adding a top player to our team is only going to take us closer to really competing with the best teams in MLS."
O'Brien came close to playing for Bradley many years earlier, when he considered returning from the Netherlands to go to college.
"The first time I met him I was on a recruiting trip to Princeton," O'Brien stated. "I'd been in Holland for a year. I was very impressed with how he handled himself and the situation. He was a straight-up guy."
Bradley was well aware of O'Brien's hopes for this year.
"I know his goal, in addition to helping Chivas USA, is to be a part of our national team in Germany. When you have players who are competing to be on the national team, I think it sets a good example for our club every day. I think it's a great situation for Chivas USA and a great situation for John."
General manager Whit Haskell concurred.
"We're always looking to make the team better. We also want to win championships, and we're going to bring in the best available players to make that happen."
That's not always easy to do, considering the salary cap limits clubs must work with in MLS.
"We're within the cap," assured Haskell. "I spend a lot of time working with Bob to make sure that we're compliant, to make our team better within the cap restrictions."
It's possible that O'Brien accepted a reduced salary in order to be able to play near where he first learned to kick a ball.
"It's a place where I grew up," he said. "I'd love to play in front of my home crowd."
Chivas USA made some accommodations to be able to sign O'Brien as well, including waiving Jesus Ochoa.
"Soccer is universal," declared president Antonio Cue. "Every club dreams of having players that are world-class; players who play with their national teams. O'Brien is one of those."
When he is healthy, that is.
Having spent so little time on the field has reduced O'Brien's value as both a player and a draw for fans. Chivas USA is also taking something of a risk on someone whose reoccurring injuries have gained him a reputation for being fragile.
"I guess I've been susceptible to injuries," acknowledged O'Brien. "I'm hoping to turn that around. You're always hoping to do that and just get out there and play."
It's that drive that has kept O'Brien from giving up his soccer dream despite numerous obstacles.
"I've enjoyed playing soccer continuously," said O'Brien, admitting to frustration that he often was unable to do so.
"That's something that's eating away inside of me. I really want to get out there and play in a competitive environment."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org