O'BRIEN CLIMBING THE LADDER IN DENMARK
Nearing the completion of his successful first season in Denmark, Conor O'Brien is primed to take the next upwards step in his career.
The Danish Second Division - the third overall level of soccer in the country - may not seem to fall high on the list of destinations for young American players looking to take their first steps to a European career.
For the 22 year-old O'Brien, however, his year playing at northern team Blokhus FC has not only helped him to adjust to the rigors of the full-time game, but has also seen him refine his skills to prepare him for what lies ahead.
His path to Denmark began during his college days, thanks to a connection from his Bucknell Bison head coach Brendan Nash.
"My college coach knew a guy at Vejle, and came over to Denmark two [years] ago to learn more from a professional level," O'Brien explained. "They were ones to say they could get me a trial at Vejle."
"I came to Denmark last summer, initially on trial with Vejle, and played pretty well there," he continues. "I got along well with the coaches, and they asked me to come back five or six times for reserve matches after that, but it never worked out with my schedule or their schedule."
While there was a mutual interest between O'Brien and Vejle, who play one division above Blokhus, the staff of the team recognized that the differences with college game meant that some time would be necessary to acclimatize him to the professional environment in Denmark.
"I like the setup at Vejle and I'd like to get back there," the New York native admits, "but they recommended that I learn the Danish game a little bit. The coaches suggested that I play at Blokhus for a year and maybe make a move back to Vejle this summer."
Putting an emphasis on gaining immediate playing time, O'Brien took their advice and arranged a trial run with Second Division team Blokhus as they prepared for the 2010-11 season, and experienced the benefits almost immediately.
"I played one preseason match for Blokhus in the summer against the Randers reserves," he recounts. "I played really well, and the coach asked me to stay right after that match, without any extra training sessions."
"I ended up signing for six months, stayed through the fall and they wanted me to come back and finish this season. They've already asked me to stay for another year, but I've not decided yet."
Looking back, there is no question in his mind that this was the right decision, as he was almost immediately able to not only establish himself as a regular starter, but also excel in the role.
"I initially wanted to stay with Vejle but after coming here, they were right and I had to learn how different Danish game is from [college] soccer," he evaluates. "Had I joined [Vejle] immediately, I wouldn't have been in the starting lineup right away."
The season has been a growing success, both for O'Brien and the Blokhus organization as a whole. While spending the first few games of the season adjusting with his new team, he began to excel several weeks in, scoring an impressive total of ten goals from the midfield over their final 23 games.
In a similar fashion, Blokhus has proven to be the class of the 2nd Division West, finishing the regular season seven points ahead of their nearest competitor, with only a single loss since mid-October. This has set up an upcoming two-game playoff with eastern champions Nordvest FC for the division's lone promotion spot.
During his season at Blokhus, O'Brien has gained crucial experience across the midfield, developing a positional fluidity that will benefit him in the coming years.
"I can play every midfield position and like to be more offensive, anywhere more attacking, but I don't mind even stepping in at defensive midfield," he evaluates. "The best example when we won 1-0 against Tjørring a few weeks ago - I scored the goal at left midfield, moved to central attacking midfield, after that played on the right side, then finished game as the holding central midfielder."
His game-winning performance on that particular day was well-timed, as there were a few familiar faces in the audience eager to see him at his best. "My parents came across for the first time to see Denmark and some of my friends from here were also there," he grins.
The Bucknell grad feels that the specific style which Blokhus employs on the field has been particularly instructive for developing his skills as he and the team strive to reach the highest levels.
"At Blokhus, we like to keep ball on ground, and I think move it better than any other team in the division. Our coach likes passing and tempo."
"The biggest difference between the Second and First Division is that the First is more physical," he continues. "When you get up to the Superliga, it seems more technical and less physical. [It's] more similar to the Second Division in that way, just faster."
"This is why Vejle is trying to move up from the First Division since the Superliga is more their style. When I was with them, I could see that they are a very talented team. Finally I could say it was at a level where I could say that this is where I want to be."
Even with their resounding success, Blokhus still has two more games in order to reach their goal of jumping up to the next level. Whether O'Brien will continue on with the team is a choice he is still evaluating, and the result of their playoff will certainly play a role in his ultimate decision.
A contract offer is on the table from the team, however he is justifiably examining all of his available options, both in Denmark and stateside, with the focused goal of continually progressing towards a setting which will push him further along as a professional.
"I just started putting my name out there in the past few weeks, contacting teams to see if there's interest from teams here in Denmark in the First Division or even in MLS to bring in a player like myself," he concludes, adding "I'm just trying to to do whatever I can to reach the next level."
Blokhus will visit Nordvest FC on Wednesday for the first leg of their promotion playoff, then host the home leg in Jetsmark Stadion three days later.