SOARING UNDER THE RADAR
For Conor O'Brien, like many other soccer players around the world, the ultimate goal is to make his respective national team. Although that goal is rarely ever realized, O'Brien is inching closer and closer to it.
The SønderjyskE midfielder has impressed with his Danish team since joining in August 2011, causing his name to be mentioned in the national team picture in recent months.
"That's my number one goal," O'Brien said. "I think I've been overlooked all throughout my youth, even till now. I've always played on the underdog teams, and I've won a lot with those teams.
"I will do whatever it takes to get there, play wherever I need to play to get there. I just want to prove that I have the ability to play there."
O'Brien's journey to this point has seen him fly under the radar until fairly recently.
After a college career at Bucknell University that saw him earn All-American and a Hermann Trophy semi-finalist honors, the Mount Sinai, N.Y., native moved to the Danish third division with Blokhus FC.
O'Brien helped Blokhus with its promotion into the Danish second division, scoring 11 goals during his short time there. This piqued SønderjyskE's interest, and the midfielder jumped two divisions.
The former Bucknell Bison said before the move, he thought he was ready for the Danish Superliga- until he started training with SønderjyskE, that is.
"I obviously felt that I was ready for this level because I thought the third level in Denmark was too low to begin with," O'Brien said. "The first six months here were really difficult because every player is stronger and faster. Sometimes, you can't see that on (television)."
O'Brien's big break with SønderjyskE came last season, when the team travelled to Aalborg. This game also coincided with a change in SønderjyskE's fortunes and style.
Due to injuries and suspensions, O'Brien earned his first start in a system entirely different from the one employed by the team up to that point. SønderjyskE, which normally employed a 4-5-1 formation, switched it up to a more attack-minded 4-3-3.
The formation and philosophy change worked in the game and for the rest of the season, with SønderjyskE only losing one of its last 13 games. SønderjyskE climbed into sixth place by season's end, the team's highest ever finish in the standings.
The team also barely missed out of a European place, finishing four points behind Aarhus. Not bad for a team that usually fought for survival year in, year out.
"Instead of being a defensive, counterattack team, we started to move the ball a lot more," O'Brien said. "Every day in training from that point on, we've really become an offensive-minded team.
"If you look at our lineup, every player on the field has been an attacker at one point. We like to play good attacking (soccer), and we try to make the most of our opportunities."
Unlike the overall philosophy for the team, O'Brien has shifted to a more defensive role.
O'Brien plays a holding midfielder in SønderjyskE's 4-3-3. For much of his career before, the 23-year-old had played an attacking midfielder role. His goal total dropped to three goals in 25 appearances in the 2011-2012 season.
Because of the change in position, he said he has focused a being more a conduit between defense and attack, only going on attack when another midfielder drops back to take over the holding role.
"I think that a lot of people complement me in Denmark on my ability to get the ball from the defense and link the strikers with the defense," O'Brien said. "The one thing that I've really tried to develop here is looking over my shoulder as I'm getting the ball, before I get the ball so that by the time I get it, I can find the strikers."
O'Brien and his teammates have continued to play in the same manner, and he said the team focuses more on how it plays. The attention to detail has paid off, with SønderjyskE currently sitting in seventh place but are only three points out of fourth place.
The team is coming off a two game stretch on the road. where they drew AGF and beat Midtjylland 3-1. The team is playing well and O'Brien said SønderjyskE could make a run at the league title because of the parity in Denmark that hadn't been seen during Copenhagen's four-year dominance.
"We feel like every time we go out on the field, we have a chance to win the game, and 20-30 games from now, if we're still completing and playing the way we are right now, why shouldn't we have a chance to (win the Danish Superliga)?" O'Brien said. "I think the league is so even right now that on any day, any team could win."
As for his national team ambitions, O'Brien's switch hasn't necessarily made it any easier to earn his first call up.
The SønderjyskE man sits behind Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu, among others, in the central midfield, and it will be hard to break into that setup.
He said, however, that unlike many of the other candidates for the U.S. midfield, he plays with more finesse, which is something that you see more from Spanish and Italian nation team players.
"In a lot of American teams, it's been really strong, solid defensive guys that work real hard," O'Brien said. "Something I've always been good at is the finesse side of the game, and something I've worked on a lot recently is getting stronger."
Still, O'Brien has yet to be contacted by anyone from the U.S. staff about his future with the U.S. Men's National Team.
That won't stop him from being optimistic about his chances, though. He said that because of the strides he has made in his game over the past year at SønderjyskE, he should be coming into a U.S. camp sometime in the near future.
"I have not (had any contact with the coaches)," O'Brien said. "A lot of the other players in Denmark have been sent to the national team. I do think it's close, and I hope that I get a call up sometime soon. I'll keep working hard, going to the gym, training extra hard every day until I get there."