John O’Brien, who played every minute of the 2002 World Cup and was one of the USA’s most talented players of his era, is today somewhat removed from the soccer world.
The Southern Californian's career, which peaked in the early 2000s with Ajax, ended in large part due to accumulated injuries. Afterward O’Brien started to coach soccer. "I saw these seasoned coaches and how steeped in soccer they were,” said O’Brien to Soccer America. “And I didn't know if I wanted to do that. I wanted something new.”
These days he lives in Colorado and is a psychologist, working mostly with kids.
"Just to be able to change one kid's life a little bit, to get them to understand themselves or their life a little differently — it felt really powerful,” said O’Brien. “And, like most therapists, I think I wanted to work on something within myself. I wanted to learn how to be more of a person.”
I actually met O'Brien when I was 14 years old or so. A club coach brought him in because he was working with Soccer Without Borders in Oakland, California. Nearly a decade later, I asked O'Brien about on his time with the national team, his expectations for this year’s group, and what he remembers from some of the most iconic U.S. World Cup moments.
SOCCER AMERICA: Do you recall the phone call to inform you that you made the World Cup squad in 2002. Where were you, how do you remember it?
JOHN O'BRIEN: I think it was a nice moment. A big moment. I don't remember it exactly. I had this kind of drive — something to prove. I felt like I deserved to be there the time before . That time I was brought in as an alternate, which was kind of great and aggravating at the same time.
Looking back, the year before I had some injuries and couldn't be in camp that much. I don't know if it was like, 'I deserve to be here,' it was more like, 'I can play this game well.'
And I was a rookie and I wanted to see how I could do against the main guys.
SA: Was there much of a gap between your level and theirs in 1998?
JOHN O'BRIEN: No, I think experience was a difference. I shouldn't have been a starter but would've liked to be included. Some things I could develop — I was at a really good place at Ajax. There was a lot of potential there. I really wanted to challenge myself and do things really well.
SA: How much did being an alternate in 1998 help you in 2002?
JOHN O'BRIEN: It really changed how 2002 was for me. I was a little older. I had had a really good year at Ajax too — playing a lot, we won the league title and the Dutch Cup. It was a relief — like, 'Yes, I'm on the team.'
SA: What were the conversations with Bruce Arena like in the months leading up to the 2002 World Cup?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Umm ... there was always something around health, when it comes to me [laughs]. Like, a little about positioning. I don't remember it being too tactical — Chris Armas was another player who was really liked at defensive midfielder. But he got injured and it cleared the way for that position. Bruce was also talking about playing me at fullback.
I remember wanting to play midfield for the team because I felt I could bring more value to the team there. I made that clear to him. I remember that a little bit. But it was mostly classic Bruce: "Welcome to the team, we've got a good crew." He was hopeful and inspiring.
SA: Key to you making that team?
JOHN O'BRIEN: The key was the season I had had before. The motivation was super high because I missed out on 1998. That really affected my year. You always try to perform at your peak but that was a wind at my back that just did some things in situations that improved my play and mindset.
I liked a lot of players on the U.S. team — that was a big factor too. Some of the older guard were just really cool guys — Earnie Stewart, Claudio Reyna, Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller were awesome.
SA: Did you ever have a team where you really didn't like the guys?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Oh, absolutely. Plenty of times. In Holland, I was on teams and there are just some guys who rub you wrong or cause conflict.
The idea in Holland is that those guys actually help you play better. I don't know if that's the case. I talk to other national team players about this idea and the dick on the team is always liked by the coach because he keeps everyone sharp.
SA: Compare environments between Ajax and the U.S. national team.
JOHN O'BRIEN: Ajax is going to be a young team. It was right after the 2002 World Cup and we were in the Champions League and were the youngest team — average age of 22. There will be really skilled players with a lot of potential. The soccer aspect itself is really technical and tactical. That's what you're honing — we played a lot of possession drills, and there were high expectations when it came to those things.
With the U.S. team, it's different. A team with a wide age range of players — traditionally, it has done well when it's really athletic, willing to run a lot and has good team spirit. And then has some players who are doing really good things to create opportunities. It's a real different feel.
SA: Which camp were you in, in your opinion — running a lot or creating opportunities?
JOHN O'BRIEN: It's funny. Bruce was concerned about my defensive abilities when it came to playing defensive midfield. I was like, 'Dude, I got this. I play defense at Ajax.' The added thing was that I was technical — I could move it, put guys in on goal.
The technical aspect was something I always tried to bring to the national team — just to play, like, nice soccer.
SA: Some differences between playing at Ajax and with the national team?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Even chaotic, I would say sometimes. Growing up, guys were playing all sorts of different styles so when we played possession it was unclear where everyone was supposed to be. That made it pretty hard to enter into the team.
At Ajax, you were on the youth team and the first team plays the same way, only faster. That was a hard adjustment — you had to be really creative with the U.S. team to keep the ball.
SA: What do you remember from your first appearance with the U.S. national team?
JOHN O'BRIEN: It was a blur. I felt like survival, to start. I remember I had the opportunity to take a dive early on to get a call. It was probably in our own half. I did it to relieve pressure. I was doing everything I could to get our team a little bit of an advantage.
SA: Best and worst memories from that World Cup?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Best memory? I mean, probably a couple. The Portugal game, of course. Scoring early. Going up 3-0 was like, the most amazing.
Worst memory? There were some times when my anger got a little out of control. Against Mexico I was a little too on edge. In the locker room I got really upset and I threw something and it hit an assistant coach, George Gelnovatch.
I made some pretty hard tackles and probably should've been yellow-carded. I had the handball, too.
SA: Can you describe what it feels like to score in a World Cup? From the perspective of a psychologist, maybe?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Um ... elation, for me. In my psychology development, I had learned a little bit more how to let positive feelings move through me. Just like angry feelings. I was better at that with positive emotions than negative ones. But I was definitely on a high for a few days after that.
SA: Proudest moment in soccer?
JOHN O'BRIEN: I'm trying to think of a time where there was a moment of connection between players. Or playing at a certain level where your teammates respected you or you guys got each other.
I'm thinking of training moments when things just clicked. With Earnie Stewart one time at practice, doing a Dutch move where he would check to the ball and then go deep and I'd play it. We got each other. Another move at Ajax, we were really calm and just waited to let the play develop for the space to open up. Sometimes if you play quickly the space isn't there — but another player saw it and the coach saw it too. And it was like, 'Nice job.'
Those kinds of things give me the chills of like, really cool mastery of your craft.
SA: Biggest regret in soccer?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Um ... I had a lot of physical issues. I tried to get support for it the best I could but I don't know, it's hard to say.
Getting mental support would've been something I would've been curious about.
SA: How much of a precedent was there back then for getting mental support?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Not much. Bruce was big on sports psychology. He brought one in to the team. I saw a few people during that time, after the 2002 World Cup, though. At Ajax one time — it was embarrassing — they had me see the team doctor. It was someone who wasn't trained in any way and there was no sense of privacy. It was ridiculous how they were trying to do something — I was getting injured more often and they were trying to support me with that. That was the intent.
SA: Advice for players going to their first World Cup?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Recognize what you need to be there and able to play the best you can. You gotta spend a little time thinking about that: What you need from your support staff, family and friends. Boundary-making is a good conversation to have beforehand.
Share the joys with people. It's such a unique experience. Share it with your teammates and family.
SA: Key to succeeding for USA at this World Cup?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Mindset will make the biggest difference at this point. They haven't proven anything, so going in there with something to prove — be confident and relaxed.
SA: Expectations for USA at 2022 World Cup?
JOHN O'BRIEN: I think we'll have a couple of nice goals. I'm looking forward to that — some of that individual flair that's blossoming with this young team. Some sense of flash.
Getting out of the group is where I would kind of put them. It's a roll of the dice after that.
SA: How and where will you be watching?
JOHN O'BRIEN: I'll probably be with family on the West Coast. Some of my nephews are really into soccer too. That'll be cool to do it all together.
SA: Is it cool for your nephews to have The John O'Brien as their uncle?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Yeah! They just went to an Ajax summer camp in Amsterdam. I didn't hook it up — you can just apply and go there. But I've gone out to their practice sessions sometimes and done a little coaching.
SA: Best player you ever played with internationally, on your team?
JOHN O'BRIEN: We're picking favorites? I don't want to do that. No comment.
SA: Still talk to any of the guys from the 2002 World Cup team?
JOHN O'BRIEN: I'm friendly with a lot of guys, but I don't talk to anyone regularly. Marcelo Balboa lives kind of close to me and we've messaged about but haven't hung out.
SA: How involved in the game are you these days?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Scale 1-10? Like, as a fan, I'm up there. Maybe 8 — I watch a lot of soccer and listen to a bunch of soccer podcasts and talk about tactics.
There's work I do with some of my patients that involves sports psychology, I don't know if that counts. In terms of high-level stuff, not much. I was apart of the U.S. Soccer Athletes Council, but I'm not anymore and don't have any official role. Although I did just get added to the U.S. Soccer medical committee.
SA: Most competitive U.S. teammate?
JOHN O'BRIEN: It's weird, but Clint Mathis came to mind.
SA: Funniest USMNT teammate?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Let's stick with Clint.
SA: A coach who influenced your career the most?
JOHN O'BRIEN: Dan Olsen was a big youth coach of mine — my first youth coach and he was just really supportive, created a good environment and he was all about trying things.
When I was at Ajax, going from the reserve to the first team I had Jan Wouters who liked how I played and really supported me in learning how to play that position and how to be a pro in that position. He got me a first-team contract and got me loaned out to Utrecht, a club he came up at.
SA: How did soccer, if at all, help you be a better psychologist? Any connection?
JOHN O'BRIEN: A lot of ways. There are ways it didn't: this is a craft around words, feelings and vulnerability. In soccer there's obviously less emphasis on words and not always about communicating directly about your feelings.
Patience, dealing with pressure and stress, the body connection is something I really noticed compared to other therapists. I have more body awareness in ways and I think that helps people with their physical expressions and stuff.
That might be the one way it really helps me in my field.
John Todd/ISI Photos
Arlo, This was a decent interview, rating it a 6 and it could have been the best interview of all the interviews SA has given this whole year, perhaps with a 7or 8 rating for a soccer journalist. Realize, O'Brien played for Ajax, a club known for their great expertise in developing youth players and playing nice soccer.
If you take it from that perspective, and KNOWING that many of our readers are youth coaches, trainers and fans who could learn something, you should have ELABORATED on some of answers by O'Brien that dealt with soccer, pure soccer that is.
The answer that dealt with Jan Wouters, who was the brains of Ajax on the field when he played for Johan Cruyff and was the captain of the Dutch team that won the '88 European Cup, giving O'Brien field advice is where you should asked O'Brien what he learned from Wouters, a little more elaboration, like What were some of the tips or insights given to O'Brien by Wouters that he should do or watch for on the field. THESE WOULD BE EXCELLENT LITTLE NUGGETS FOR OUR COACHES TO LEARN FROM and perhaps employ in their coaching and training......
Being from Holland, I notice the glaring inequities of American journalism as compared what I get in Holland. My criticism on American soccer journalism is that their interviews are too superficial, glossed over, much of what is written could qualify on the level of 'Readers Digest', weighing way too much on the human interest side with soccer being just a side issue.
You did a good job but next time when you interview always keep in mind 'what can my readers also learn about the game that is interesting and can learn from' ,for afterall , SA is about soccer whose reader's base deserve a little icing on the cake, especially for those coaches and trainers, as well.