O'BRIEN UNFAZED BY SETBACK
Concern for his fitness was the number one issue as US midfielder John O'Brien took questions from the media on Tuesday, not quite two hours after being named to the World Cup roster.
All but one of the several journalists gathered for the press conference asked about his setbacks, both current and former.
The oft-injured O'Brien was immediately pressed on the point and asked if, in fact, US coach Bruce Arena wasn't taking a risk by naming him to the squad.
"I don't know if he's taking a risk," said the soft spoken O'Brien. "As of now, I've been named to the 23."
"There's still opportunity for him to replace me with an alternate. I mean, up to the 15th, he can do that without any injuries."
"He wants to see me, in the next month, get into form and be able to play in some of the practice games. And if I do that then I can go to Germany, so it's not something that's been set in stone already."
"He wants to give me the chance, which I greatly appreciate, but it's not set in stone and I think that lessens the risk."
The basic question of his fitness was repeated several times over the course of the nearly 30-minute question and answer session.
O'Brien, unruffled, acknowledged that his fitness and game readiness needed work, but gave assurances that there is time for him to bring his game up to World Cup speed.
"This is the first step," he said. "I've given myself an opportunity to go to the World Cup."
"The next month is physically going to be tough for me. I'm going to need to get in some good training, improve my conditioning, get used to tight situations in games or in our practice games. Stuff like that. That will definitely have to take place. I think I can definitely do it in a month."
The most recent injury woe for O'Brien is a strained left calf that kept him off his club roster for last week's Chivas USA's match-up with New York. That injury, now on the mend, was sustained in a practice scrimmage in late April, just as O'Brien was starting to regain full fitness following a groin injury.
"I felt it [the calf] kind of tighten up at the start of the second half," said the former Ajax man. "I have to say that my lungs were feeling good and I felt like playing and I kind of pushed it when maybe I should have held myself back a little bit."
"But I did that and now I'm happy after a week I was able to start running pretty good and still get after it fitness-wise. So it didn't take me out too long."
Given his recent history, O'Brien admits that he doubted at times whether he would be named to the roster of players headed for Germany this summer and expressed a sense of accomplishment in making the list of 23 hopefuls.
"Yeah, it wasn't a sure thing," said a reflective O'Brien. "That's definite – especially recently, leading up to this."
"Since it's been 2006, actually, it's been something that been on my mind and I've been trying to put myself in the position to go to the World Cup. I'm in that position now, but there were definitely times where it was dwindling, and yeah, I'm kinda happy that I'm here right now."
"I'm happy that I've been named to the 23. That's kind of an accomplishment in some way."
In addition to all the extra physical demands of rehabilitation, O'Brien's fight back has become for him a trying exercise in psychology.
"It's always been that the toughest part is mentally," he said. "You know, just having another thing coming up stopping you from doing what you want to do, which is play soccer."
"The past few months I've been in a pretty clear state of mind with what I want to do and feel like I've been working through things, improving my fitness and doing more on the soccer field."
"It feels good to have a good run like that and then having something like this roster announcement, which is a bit of an encouragement to keep on going."
This is O'Brien's second time being named to a US World Cup squad, and he was asked by YA to try and compare the feeling of the two occasions.
"The first one was a bit of vengeance because I was an alternate in '98," he chuckled. "So that felt really good to be named on the squad and not as an alternate."
"This one, for its own reasons, has been very sweet and I'm looking forward to trying to make the team that goes to Germany."
Seemingly typical of the players and quite unlike the media members following the US roster announcement, O'Brien admitted to feeling no surprise in the list of players named.
"I didn't really add it all up like a lot of the journalists did," said the red-head. "So I didn't really know who were the bubble players and who might've been on and might've been off."
"I mean, there are definitely some good players that are not on the squad who have been named as alternates and I guess every time you see that you think that's a player who could help the team at the World Cup."
Asked by YA to comment on the strengths and weakness of the roster of players, O'Brien offered this assessment.
"For strengths, I'd have to say experience," said the veteran of 29 international matches. "We also have a lot of players who can be physical and I think we have players who can do things that are very unpredictable."
"I wouldn't say there is any weakness, but if you compare it to the competition it's always tough. Italy, Czech Republic, and Ghana they all have players playing in top leagues around the world. So although we don't have any weakness, games in the World Cup are just a step quicker, things have to happen a bit faster, and that is something we're going to have to respond to."
Having played every minute of the five games the US played in South Korea in 2002, O'Brien feels he brings a special dimension of experience to this roster filled with players of experience.
"Well, there are a lot of players who've been there," said O'Brien of his teammates. "It seems like this team is a pretty experienced team. I definitely know what the atmosphere was like in those games and know how tight they're played, so hopefully during training we can try and emulate that in some way."
"I can have my part in doing that and raising the level of training and preparing people the best you can for the level that's going to be played there."
Of course, O'Brien, like coach Arena, would offer no bold World Cup predictions for the US, but he was guardedly optimistic about what he and his fellow midfielders could bring to the table.
"There's a lot of players here and a lot of potential and if we can combine that in a good way I think that we can from the heart of the team be effective and play good soccer," said the 2000 Olympian.
With his own place in the team assured for the moment, a relaxed O'Brien demurred from venturing any guesses as to how and if he might work his way into the starting 11.
"I don't know," he laughed. "That's something you've got to ask Bruce."