BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, May 21, 2013
The U-20 World Cup is fast approaching and Shane O'Neill is confident in the US team's chances in prestigious tournament next month.
O'Neill, 19, was a key part of the US team's defensive backline during Word Cup qualifying in February and left the tournament as an experienced central defender. He later returned to Colorado and quickly broke into the team's starting lineup following a wave of injuries to hit the club.
"I feel good," O'Neill told YA. "I think I got a good amount of experience playing with the U-20s at centerback so I feel that I came in fit and ready to contribute. I'm just happy to have gotten the opportunity and I think I've done pretty decent in the time I've had gotten. I'm happy with how things have gone."
The results speak for themselves as to O'Neill's contribution to the team. Colorado signed him last year to a homegrown contract but he managed to play in only one game as he adjusted to life as a professional player.
This year has been a different story after joining the club in March after international duty. His first start of the season for the Rapids came on March 30 in a 2-2 draw against Portland. Since then, he has started eight straight games and the Rapids have lost just once in that span while conceding just six goals.
O'Neill earned a red card in his game over the weekend against San Jose but his foul on Chris Wondolowski in the 89th minute may have preserved the 1-1 draw since it prevented the reigning MLS scoring champion a chance to move in alone on goal.
The draw ensured that Colorado remained in fifth place in the Western Conference.
"It's huge to be getting in these types of games," O'Neill said. "I just feel a lot more confident with the coach willing to play me in these types of minutes. I don't really know the college standard but I just think getting first team MLS minutes at an early age is huge."
O'Neill's strong start to the season is more impressive when observing the rapid strides he has made in playing in central defense. In fact it wasn't until last October on a camp with the US U-20's in Spain when he first ever played in the backline. Prior to that, he mostly played as an attacking midfielder or a forward.
He enjoys playing in the backline but admits that when he gets the ball, sometimes his attacking instincts still push him to move forward.
"I was always going forward when I was younger either as a center forward or an attacking midfielder," O'Neill said. "But as I got older, it was really only with the U-18s was the first time I ever played in the midfield. With the U20s was the first time I've only ever played centerback. I really liked going forward and it's tough not being able to go forward as much as I want to. There are times in the game when I want to get the ball forward and go. But I'm learning the position and it may end up being my main position."
Despite only learning the position recently, O'Neill will be one of the more experienced players on the US U-20's as he is one of the youngest starting central defenders in MLS.
During World Cup qualifying, O'Neill started every game in central defense for the US team and gradually improved as the tournament progressed. He is now on the roster for the Toulon tournament, the final World Cup preparation tournament, but some reports are suggesting he may remain with the Rapids and only join the US team for the World Cup.
But the journey to becoming a mainstay with Tab Ramos' team was not a smooth process. As he gradually learned the position of central defense late in the cycle, there was an adjustment period and it finally came together in qualifying.
"It was crazy how it all came about," O'Neill recalled. "I got called into a camp in December and I really didn't play well. But Tab kept faith in me and called me into a camp in January and I did a little bit better. Then he called me in for the qualifiers and I was fully fit, recovered from my injury. I just put it all together and played pretty well. It was great. The game against Mexico was a great experience. Hopefully I'll be able to keep it going for the World Cup if Tab calls me back in. I'm obviously happy with how everything is going so far."
The road ahead at the World Cup in Turkey will be difficult for the US team who were drawn into a difficult group with Spain, France, and Ghana. The Irish-born O'Neill, however, is confident in his team's chances to advance.
"It's obviously a tough draw but I think it's great because if we're going to win the thing we're going to have to go through them anyway," O'Neill concluded. "I think it'll be a great challenge for us. We're going to be playing in front of the most scouts and big crowds while going against the top players. It's going to be a great experience."