Bill O’Brien achieved success as a businessman by creating a leading American brand of ice-lolly; now his son Johnhas been making a mark of his own as one of the mainstays of the United States soccer team, which surpassed all expectations by reaching the last eight at World Cup 2002.
In years to come, the Ajax midfielder will look back fondly on the 2001-02 season as the one when everything fell into place. After five years working his way through the ranks at the Amsterdam club, the Californian finally established himself as a first-team regular and played an important part in the club’s League and Cup double. In Korea/Japan, he answered all those who once doubted his ability to make the international grade.
O’Brien is a thoroughly versatile performer, capable of filling a number of midfield positions as well as full-back for Ajax. But the senior US coaching staff appeared less than convinced about his abilities. They noted how he was often injured, wanted to see more of him as an attacking force and were frustrated when Ajax blocked his participation in friendlies and training camps.
O’Brien appeared in only six of his country’s 16 World Cup qualifiers, but as reports of his derring-do at Ajax piled up, USA coach Bruce Arena came to realise this was one player he could not do without in the Far East. So it proved. O’Brien was inspirational on the left of midfield, bright, busy and obviously a graduate of the Ajax school of advanced-level passing. He put the US ahead in their shock 3-2 win against Portugal and set up Clint Mathis’ goal in the 1-1 draw with South Korea.
“I predicted John would have a great World Cup, and he proved me right,” says USA skipper Claudio Reyna. “He’s awesome and makes the team that much better. Ajax don’t pick just anyone.”
After showing up well at a soccer school at California’s Burbank University, the young O’Brien was recommended to Ajax by a member of staff with Dutch connections. Aged 14, he went on a three-week training programme in Amsterdam, the club kept tabs on him, and two years later asked him back for a trial, which he sailed through to earn a place in Ajax’s youth system.
By 1998, O’Brien had shown enough to be offered a contract, though he was then loaned to Utrecht and, on his return, had to make do with a bit-part role. Only last term did he become a permanent fixture.
“You have to give all the credit to Johnny for making it at Ajax,” says fellow US team-mate Earnie Stewart, who was raised in Holland. “He’s done it all by himself.”
Club Ajax (Hol)
Country United States
Born August 29, 1977, in Los Angeles
International debut April 1998, v Austria
International caps 18 (2 goals)
Honours Dutch League 2002; Dutch Cup 2002