U.S. Under-21 Men’s National Team defender Shane O’Neill had moved his way up the Colorado Rapids Academy system primarily as a forward and midfielder. Since his time with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team under head coach Tab Ramos, O’Neill has been primarily at center back for club and country. O’Neill took some time during the recent U-21 MNT camp to chat with ussoccer.com about the position switch and his hopes of joining the U.S. squad for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Had you ever played on the back line before joining the U.S. U-20 MNT for the previous cycle?
Shane O’Neill: “No, not before Tab put me back there with the U-20s over in Spain for the Marbella Cup [in October of 2012]. It was a bit of an adjustment, but it’s kind of worked out for me so far. Ever since then, it’s been my thing playing center back. Obviously it was a bit of a change. I still think I can offer something in the midfield if somebody wants me to play there, but so far it’s been good. Tab’s put a lot of faith in me. It was good moving back there during the whole U-20 cycle.”
So this switch was made in your first U-20 call-up?
SO: “Yes, right away when I came in, Tab kind of told me that he sees me playing center back for this group. He brought me in as a center back even though I hadn’t really played there that much, and he probably saw something in my game that suggested that I could play back there.”
O'Neill on Adjusting to Center Back
ussoccer.com: What were some of the biggest challenges making the move to defense?
SO: “There are little things that you don’t really know about if you’re not playing back there, challenges such as body positioning, communication and reading the game. I remember going to a couple camps early on and just kind of having no clue of any of that stuff. The U-20 staff really helped me out as I learned the little things about playing center back. I think it helped in the long run, and obviously the Rapids staff helped quite a bit, too.”
ussoccer.com: Are there any aspects of your midfield background that you think made this a successful transition?
SO: “As a midfielder, I was a ball-winner anyway, played 100 percent, won tackles and got stuck in. I think bringing that mentality to center back helps me out a bit. I have gradually moved back, starting as a forward in the Academy and then moving to midfield and then to center back. I’ve kind of gotten experience at every spot, so I think that’s helped to be able to see the game from different spots. As a center back, I’m just trying to read the game and work off of my experiences from the past.”
ussoccer.com: Outside of the U-20s, your club also embraced this move to the defense. Were you surprised by that?
SO: “At first I was pretty surprised. I thought it was only going to be a U-20s thing, and then last preseason the Rapids were like, ‘We want to play you at center back until the U-20 World Cup just so you can get those reps in. If you’re playing in the World Cup, at least you’ve got experience back there.’ So I got to the World Cup having played pretty well in MLS, and then I came back and they just kept putting me back there. It was good, though. I got on the field quite a bit last year and this year as a center back. I definitely didn’t expect it. I thought I was going to move back into the midfield, but as of now, it’s been good. Playing center back has been good to me.”
ussoccer.com: Are there any MLS or National Team players you have talked to who have undergone similar position switches?
SO: “Drew Moor is a guy who has moved around quite a bit – right back, center back, a little defensive midfield – so he’s talked to me about it a couple of times. I’m just trying to learn as I go, no matter what position I’ve been playing, because I’ve been playing a little bit of right back, too, this year. I’m just trying to stay solid and stay focused on the game, because when you’re put in different positions, sometimes it can get a little difficult because there hasn’t been too much consistency with it. But I definitely feel really comfortable at center back now having played there so much the last year.”
ussoccer.com: You had the opportunity at the start of the year to play for the senior team under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. What was that experience like?
SO: “It was a great experience being down in Brazil. We had intense training sessions and saw the standard of the best players for the National Team. It was a great experience to see that, and hopefully that’s just a stepping stone for the future. Obviously I don’t want that to be the pinnacle. Hopefully I can use that experience and build off of it.”
ussoccer.com: How beneficial was the MNT trip for you specifically on the defensive side?
SO: “It was huge just being around those guys – Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Clarence Goodson – just learning so much about playing center back from those guys, about communication, how to play organized. I learned so much being around the coaching staff. It definitely was a huge learning experience for me – invaluable really. I think that stood out, just learning from the best players from the National Team.”
The MNT Experience
ussoccer.com: What other advice or direction did you get out of camp, on or off the field?
SO: “I learned a lot about taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep, getting the right nutrition day in and day out. From the coaching staff’s perspective, they told me to try and move the line out a little quicker and organize the players in front of you, and I think that’s one thing I have taken away from it and trying to do a lot more this year. I’m trying to be a leader on the field and get the team higher and press, and be an organizer on the field. It definitely was not something that I was used to doing, so I’m trying to get used to it and trying to shape my game that way.”
ussoccer.com: How has the U.S. U-21 MNT camp been going so far?
SO: “It’s been good. It’s been great to see a lot of the guys from the U-20 World Cup and some of the new faces coming in. Hopefully all of us can use this as a chance to impress Jurgen and the staff, especially in the game against Tijuana. I think it’s a big opportunity for a lot of us to show what we can do on the field. I think it’s good to get the training sessions in with the team and get reunited with everybody and get in front of Jurgen. The training sessions have been good and everyone’s excited for the game. Hopefully we can get a result.”
At the U-21 Camp
ussoccer.com: How vital has this U-21 MNT camp been to get a jump-start on forming the USA squad for Olympic Qualifying down the road?
SO: “I think it would have been disappointing if we hadn’t done anything for a couple years and then just got brought back together for the Olympics. I think everyone is excited getting together to have a good camp. It’s short, but at the same time you’ve got to work hard. It’s nice seeing each other and meeting up again as a group to discuss how things are going. I think it’s been really positive for all of us, and it will only help our cause for the Olympics and qualifying.”
ussoccer.com: How excited are you about the opportunity and possibility of being part of an Olympic squad if everything pans out?
SO: “It’s a great opportunity for all of us. You always see a lot of great players at the Olympics, and you never know what can happen from there. This is an opportunity for us to test ourselves against the best teams in the world. It’s definitely something that we need to focus on, to make sure we qualify for, and once we’re there, anything can happen. The Olympics in Brazil probably does not get much better than that in terms of an environment for playing soccer. We’re all excited about it and just trying to stay focused and get into those qualifiers and do well.”
ussoccer.com: How invaluable was the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup to gain some strong international experience?
SO: “It was huge to know that we can play against some of the top guys over in Europe. We got a result against France, the eventual winner, so that was huge for us. It was a little bit unlucky that we got such a tough draw, but at the same time we played pretty well. If not for one or two things that happened, or the ball bouncing another way, maybe we get through. At the end of the day, those experiences are huge for us as a team, and I think we grew together a lot during that time period. I think that will just make us stronger.”
2013 U-20 World Cup
SO: “I think just confidence-wise, playing against guys like Paul Pogba and all those guys for France and Ghana who are doing well over in Europe, knowing you can play with those guys and not just play with them but play well, that’s just huge for your confidence level. Just to get those games under my belt – obviously I was disappointed to be suspended for the first game – but to get those two games under my belt in the World Cup, and just an atmosphere like that, playing for your country, it’s a great experience. I took a lot out of it confidence-wise.”
I got a call that every soccer player dreams of a few days after our last game of the NWSL season.
My coach at the Western New York Flash, Paul Riley, had come up to me a couple of days before that and told me that Jill Ellis might bring me into National Team camp. I was really excited and anxious then, but when I got the call from Tim Ryder, the WNT General Manager, I was sitting in my living room, doing some packing and doing some phone interviews, so it caught me a bit off-guard.
I was trying to act very cool, but on the inside I was so excited. In fact, it’s highly likely that I didn’t sound cool at all.
He told me that I was invited into the training camp for the two games against Switzerland in Utah and Minnesota, but that I had to keep it under wraps until U.S. Soccer officially announced the roster. Of course, I immediately called my parents, my sister, and my boyfriend but I told them that WE ALL needed to keep it a secret.
The roster was announced a week later after we’d won the semifinal against Portland and before the NWSL Championship. I’m not the most talkative person, but it was hard keeping that secret for a week!
Before coming to Utah, I’d only been in a few youth camps with the Under-23s, and all those girls had known each other for a long time. Everyone was nice, but I remember feeling that they were a bit standoffish until you proved yourself, so that’s what I was expecting from the senior group, except times ten. These players are professionals, Olympic champions, World Cup champions and they have tremendous confidence in the environment.
I was a bit nervous about how to fit in.
Williams helped lead the WNY Flash to the club's first NWSL title as the league MVP and Golden Boot winner.
Soccer-wise, coming off the NWSL season, I felt fresh and confident, but I knew it was going to be hard. Coming into a National Team camp any time is hard, and I knew doing it for the first time was going to be a big challenge.
I was definitely nervous about the soccer.
Naturally, the veterans gravitate towards the veterans and the newbies gravitate towards the newbies, but there were 11 uncapped players going in so I knew I wasn’t going to be by myself. Of course, I also knew my Western New York teammates Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, so that was a bit more comforting.
What I didn’t expect was that the veterans would be so welcoming, on and off the field. When you made a mistake, they said “try this instead” and when you did something well, they would commend you for it. That support really made training even more fun. I learned a lot and every practice was awesome.
That said, training was intense. Everyone was so excited to get into camp that the first couple of days it was like a bunch of mad women running around. As Arin Gilliland said to a reporter, “WNT training is like the NWSL, on three cups of coffee.” It’s probably like five cups.
And it was not just the physical speed; the speed of thought is also so heightened. Playing in New York, sometimes I feel like I can get away with receiving the ball and then decide what to do with it. With the National Team, you have to have like three different options in your mind even before you receive the ball. I knew I needed to improve on that.
We got tons of information from the coaches. Some of the stuff you already know, but the language and the verbiage is different so you have to learn that. You have to learn how they want you to play in a particular formation, you have to learn your assignments on set plays and you have to learn it quickly. Fortunately, everyone is open to questions.
I asked Becky (Sauerbrunn) and Christen (Press) a million questions and my roommate Alyssa (Naeher) probably two million. I am sure she was thinking, “Man, this girl sure asks a lot of questions.” But I figured better to ask than not to ask and look like I have no idea what I’m doing, which I’m sure was still the case some of the time.
For me, the first few days were challenging. You’re trying to get a feel for all the players, their tendencies and how they like to play. Mentally, I think I was putting more pressure on myself that I needed to.
On the third day, I found out I would be a sub for the game. I told myself, “Lynn, stop being such a psycho, stopping being so chaotic, you know how to play soccer,” and I settled in a bit.
I thought I had a good practice the day before the game in Utah and then the day came and I told myself I needed to play even better in the game. After the game, I told myself I needed to play even better in the next practice. Of course, you can’t do that every day, but you have to challenge yourself and that’s the kind of attitude you have to have.Read more