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O’Brien yet to gain favor with national team coaching staff.

By Robert Wagman

PASADENA, Calif. (Thursday, January 20, 2000) -- The 10 days of training both for the full United States national team, and the under-23 team were highly successful for some players, and significantly less so for others as coach Bruce Arena searches for the 11 who will start in World Cup qualifying in October, and his counterpart Clive Charles readies his U-23s for Olympic qualifying in April.

Probably the biggest surprise of the camp was John O'Brien being sent down from the senior camp to the U-23s. Arena has been wanting to get a close look at O'Brien, who plays for Ajax in the Netherlands, for more than a year. But every time the national team has been together, O'Brien has been hurt. This was the time, Arena and his assistants thought, they finally would get a good long look at O'Brien.

It didn't happen. On the third day of camp, O'Brien suffered a mild calf strain. The injury was not serious, and was not connected to the almost chronic foot problem O'Brien has been suffering from the past year and a half, but it was enough to keep him out of training.

Arena figured this camp was also the only time Charles would be able to get a look at O'Brien, and he figures to be a key player on the Olympic team. Since he could not train with the seniors at full speed, Arena sent him down to the U-23 camp in San Diego.

"I'm very disappointed," O'Brien said after playing 90 minutes in the U.S. 3-1 victory over Armenia. "I came here hoping I would get a start on the full team, but then I pulled my calf and couldn't run for several days. I think I'm doing well in Holland and that I can play on the senior team. I hope I'll get another chance in the Gold Cup."

Talking to Arena and others on the national team coaching staff, one gets the feeling they are not overwhelmed by O'Brien. Many people assume that because he plays for Ajax, and starts in a fair number of its matches, he must be better than anyone playing in Major League Soccer. This is not necessarily the case.

In the system Ajax plays, wing forwards carry much of the attack, and two midfielders slot in behind them in a limited, defensive role. O'Brien has fit into that role well, and the Ajax coaching staff is very pleased with his development.

Under the system that Arena plays, there is room for one defensive midfielder. But he must be wide-ranging, and aggressive, and must be able to get into the offense when the occasion arises.

Right now, the Chicago Fire's Chris Armas is playing the position well. He arguably was the U.S.'s best player in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Iran here. He not only scored the only goal, and almost a second, but he worked hard in the middle to shut down Iran's midfielders after Khodadad Azizi ran past him before dishing off for Iran's only goal.

Against Armenia for Charles' U-23s, O'Brien played much the same central defensive midfield position as Armas did for the full side. He certainly did well, but was far from a dominant player. He rarely got involved in the offense, but did make one or two decent runs out of the back.

Charles says he is not worried about O’Brien. "John has not played with us for almost a year and a half,” he said. “We need to integrate him back into the side slowly. We'll get him more involved in the offense as time goes on. He did fine out there tonight."

It well may be that O'Brien will primarily play with the U-23s through the Summer Olympics in September. If he continues to play regularly for Ajax, it may be difficult to get him released for a long enough period that he can work with both teams. So it may be awhile before he gets another shot at the full side.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at

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