College Men: O'Brian White's Unfinished Business

O'Brian White, the strong University of Connecticut forward, returns to the Huskies, hoping to build off a 2007 season that saw him collect Soccer America Player of the Year and Hermann Trophy and honors.

When Patrick Nyarko, White's main competition for 2007 Player of the Year honors, left Virginia Tech after his third year to join the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer, many expected White to follow suit and declare himself eligible for the MLS SuperDraft. But after a quarterfinal loss in last year's NCAA tournament, the 22-year-old White felt he and his UConn teammates had unfinished business to tend to.

"We came up short last year, but I knew we were going to have a good team for this year," he explains. "I didn't want to short-change my teammates."

It was, coincidentally, a Nyarko goal that denied the Huskies a trip to the Men's College Cup. Playing in its own Morrone Stadium, UConn lost  1-0 to Virginia Tech on a frozen, muddy field that made it difficult to play anything but direct, unattractive soccer.

"They are a very good team, but the field had something to do with it," White says, before adding, "I don't really like New England weather."

It's hard to blame the Jamaican-born White for that. The 6-foot-1 forward was raised in Ocho Rios, on the northern coast of the Caribbean island. He grew up playing in the Jamaican youth soccer system and has represented the national team at the U-15, U-17 and U-20 levels. But White has had a fair amount of time to adjust to cold winters. During high school, he moved to Scarborough, Ont., to live with his mother. The value she places on education was a big influence on White, who will be the first member of his family to have a degree from a four-year institution.

White makes it clear, "I really wanted to come back and graduate."
Now that he's back, the aim is to get take the team one step further and make a run at the final four.

"I'm really only concerned with making it to the College Cup," he admits. "That's the main goal. And hopefully, we can bring the trophy back to Connecticut."

White's return to the Storrs campus is a huge lift for Coach Ray Reid, who is back for his 12th year leading the men's program, but it didn't completely surprise him.

"He had such a good year," says Reid. "He's such a good kid. He wants to graduate and he has goals he wants to meet, so I wasn't shocked."

In White, Reid has last season's top scorer in the country and a player who dismantled nearly every scoring record in UConn's storied history.

In 24 games, White scored 23 goals, the most ever in a single season by a Husky. Add in his seven assists, and White finished the year with 53 points, a mark that also led the nation. On the way, he had two back-to-back hat tricks against Big East rivals Providence and Pittsburgh. And in the NCAA second-round victory over South Florida, White struck three more times and became the first UConn player to have three career hat tricks.

White's clinical instincts in front of the goal extended into the postseason, where he managed six goals in six matches and helped lead the team to a Big East Championship.

But for all of White's scoring exploits, Reid is quick to credit the player's teammates.

"O'Brian's head was on straight, he was extremely focused. But a lot of it came down to guys like Mike Pezza and Akeem Priestley getting him the ball," he explains. "Pezza led the country in assists with 19 and Priestley had 13. These guys were constantly finding him in good spots and he was finishing them."

Pezza, a junior, and Priestley, a senior, also return to give the Huskies one of the country's most dangerous offenses.

Coach Reid, though, isn't shy in emphasizing the importance of White to the team.

"He's as good as anybody we've had during my time here," he says.

That puts White in some pretty good company. Coach Reid has sent a number of players into Major League Soccer, including Julius James (Toronto FC) and Ryan Cordeiro (D.C. United) from last year's team.

He's also coached Hermann Trophy finalist Damani Ralph, whose promising career has been hampered by recurring knee injuries, and other Jamaican standouts such as Anthony Curtis and Shavar Thomas.

Reid's other Hermann Trophy winner was Chris Gbandi, who led UConn to its second national championship in 2000. After six seasons in MLS with FC Dallas, Gbandi recently jumped on the increasingly popular and lucrative transfer train to Scandinavia, where he plays for FK Haugesund in Norway.

FROM GOOD TO GREAT. White's emergence into the national spotlight came suddenly. After scoring 10 goals in his rookie season, he managed only seven the following year in a campaign that ended with a disappointing NCAA first-round loss to Fairfield. White points to his offseason preparation when explaining the improvement in his play and huge surge in the number of balls he put into the back of the net.
"Last offseason, I really pushed myself," he says. "I really devoted myself to it, so when I did feel exhausted I could rest and recuperate. And I put more time in the weight room."

That extra effort off the field has made him more focused on it.

"I just never get complacent," he says. "I always work —even if we're winning a match, I'm working. I don't take a day off."

Coach Reid has also had a hand in fostering that mentality.

"He doesn't accept 85 percent," White says. "He expects your best effort every day, every practice. He's a great motivator. Even when you play bad, you come away with a positive attitude because he helps you believe that you can do better."

This summer, White has been following the same formula – working hard in Canada in preparation for his final Huskies season opener.

"The goal is to come back and take it one game at a time," he explains. "Every game we're going to treat the same. We've got to make sure that we're ready to match their intensity."

Coach Reid echoed the sentiment, refusing to discuss any long-term team goals concerning the Big East and the NCAA tournament. "We're just worried about being a good team," he says. "We're worried about getting ready for the first game and trying to concentrate on putting our best foot forward all year."

NOT PICKY ABOUT PLANS. When White does finally run out of college eligibility, he won't be picky about where he plays his professional soccer. As of now, he hasn't given much though to whether he'd like to play in MLS or take his talents to Europe.

"When I finish college, I will look at the best opportunity. Hopefully, it's somewhere competitive, and hopefully, it's a place where I can help the team win," he says. "As long as I'm somewhere where I'm comfortable, I should be all right."

Reid thinks White will succeed wherever he ends up.

"He's going to be very, very good at the next level," he says.

Canadian fans will be disappointed when hearing of White's national team plans. He'd like to play for his home country's senior national side, the Reggae Boyz.

"I'm just waiting until I finish school," he says. "I'd definitely love to play for the Jamaican national team."

In the meantime, White is relishing his leadership role on the team. "I've got to keep the guys ready and make sure that we're bringing it every game," he says.

Hopefully, that will be enough to get the Huskies to Pizza Hut Park for that elusive final four.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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