What Ever Happened To: John O'Brien

Premature retirement hasn't stopped US icon from exploring world

With 15 seasons in the books, MLSsoccer.com looks back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. We continue our "What Ever Happened To..." series with 2002 World Cup US standout and, briefly, onetime Chivas USA midfielder John O'Brien.

Where He Was Then

O'Brien had long been a favorite with fans for his exploits with Dutch power Ajax and the US national team. His lobbed assist set up Clint Mathis' strike against South Korea at the '02 World Cup, where he helped the team to the quarters. Though O'Brien's career was cut short due to injury woes, the Los Angeles native made his name in Amsterdam, where he won the 2004 Eredivisie crown. A versatile left-sider known for incisive passing, "Johnny O" eventually brought his act home, but managed just a single five-minute sub appearance for Chivas USA.

Where He Is Now

You can take John O'Brien out of Amsterdam, but you can't take the Amsterdam out of John O'Brien. When MLSsoccer.com caught up with the former US star, now age 33, he was studying philosophy in an LA café.

"I'm a full-time student," O'Brien said. "I should be done with my bachelor's [degree] this summer."

Chasing his college sheepskin was not the immediate plan for after his playing days; O'Brien gradually waded his way into academia and is now a full-time psychology major at Antioch University.

"When I stopped playing in 2007, I started taking some classes at UCLA and other schools," recalled O'Brien. "I traveled a bit, did some soccer coaching things. I decided about two-and-half years ago to go to school full-time."

With his general aim to get into sports psychology, he brushes aside an old Amsterdam interview in which he stated a desire to one day manage Ajax with the hearty laugh of a prankster.

"I said that kinda as a joke," chuckled O'Brien. "But it's great that people took it seriously. At this point, I'm not interested in being a serious coach, but I may get my coaching license – I'm not sure yet."

That's not to say he's completely departed the soccer world. O'Brien still finds time to contribute with a pair of global footie endeavors. The first is Soccer Without Borders, an organization that offers marginalized youth in six countries both soccer and social-development training.

"They have different soccer and life skills programs in more of poor areas," said O'Brien, a volunteer ambassador. "Some areas don't have the facilities that others do. I do some coaching things with them."

O'Brien has also become involved in Ajax Online Academy, which he describes as an online resource for coaches and players to be schooled in the ways of the legendary Dutch club.

Still the most recent American to suit up for Ajax, O'Brien has little troubling detailing the advantages of a soccer education at the famed De Toekomst academy with appreciation.

"I went when I was 16," he recounted. "It's just an institution, man. There's knowledge in institutions. They have really good coaches, a good idea of how they want people to play and how to get players to progress. They do a lot of great technical work and they're very rigid in their 4-3-3 system. It's all about learning all the different roles. It makes it easy when you switch from team to team."

"The next step was always ahead of you and you could see where you wanted to go," he added. "You could finish training and go see the first team train. That's something that was definitely missing a bit in American soccer when I was growing up, but now it's a bit more clear with MLS development."

When it comes to the injury troubles that curtailed his career, the student displays that his philosophy classes are taking hold.

"A lot of people have things get in the way when they chase their dreams," said O'Brien. "How you deal with that is something that's been written about in books for ages. But yeah, I've had my share of frustrations."

While many of his injuries were simply bad luck – a piece of turf coming up against PSV or an opponent stepping on his heel at Willem II – it was the recoveries that always proved most vexing.

"My brother and I have the same issues: We're a little off balance," explained O'Brien. "I have a little bit of scoliosis, a little bit of rotation of my spine and my left hip just kind of functions differently than my right hip."

"Some of my physical difficulties felt like something I was battling against, but a lot of people manage to play with different physical discrepancies. But there is an ideal. The more balance you're in, the better you can handle the load of being a professional athlete."

Among his few regrets is the fact that he never got a proper chance to make an impact showing his stuff as a wily vet in MLS.

"Having grown up with US Soccer and abroad, I would have loved to have been able to participate in American soccer at that level," he explained. "And also as a player, experiencing the transition to being one of the older players and how your role changes with that. Those are two things I definitely missed out on."

What They Said

"He’s as talented a midfielder as US soccer has ever had – a terrific passer of the ball, read the game well and scored goals as well, even though it wasn’t his forte. He was one of the better players on that [2002] US team, and was as good as most midfielders in that World Cup. He could have been a fixture for the US team and played for a big club team. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t able to continue in his career.

– Bruce Arena, O'Brien's coach with the US national team from 1998 to 2006

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