Brian Sciaretta chats underdogs and Danish football with Conor O’Brien on TSG.
Straight out of Long Island.
If–bulletin–helping teams win soccer games is the most important attribute for a player, it’s easy to see why Conor O’Brien is one of the most underrated American players in Europe and now the Long Island native will be aiming to lead Nordsjaelland to a second straight trip to the Champions League.
O’Brien, 24, parted ways with Sonderjyske in December after his contract expired and just signed a two year deal with defending Danish champions Nordsjaelland.
Demand was strong O’Brien told me recently by phone after his move.
“There was so much interest from other clubs in other countries,” O’Brien said. “We knew all along that if they were going to come with a good offer, that it was he place I wanted to be. We were able to reach something economically that we were both happy with. I couldn’t be happier about the move. “
It’s easy to see why the ambitious and fast-growing club was so eager to sign the Long Islander: everywhere he has played, his clubs have won at an unprecedented level.
In high school, O’Brien was the captain of St. Anthony’s high school and he lead the school to its first ever New York state championship in 2005. Two years later in 2007, O’Brien pulled off a stunning accomplishment when he lead his club team, the Terryville Fire, to a U-18 national title. For those who follow youth soccer in this country, Terryville’s national title was a Hollywood –style Cinderella run that would surpass what was seen in either “Miracle” or “Hoosiers.”
In 2009, O’Brien was an integral part of the Cary Clarets of the Premier Development League that unexpectedly advanced to the national semifinals.
At Bucknell he started every game over four years and lead the club to their first ever Patriot League title.
“I always thought Connor had special qualities,” says Bucknell head coach Brendan Nash. “The unfortunate thing is that everyone always sold him short because of his size and speed. We really didn’t get caught up in that. When I saw him at Terryville, I saw him impact the game no matter what. Whether his team needed him to defend or set something up, he was pulling the strings for his team.”
Despite his ability to win games as a youth player, O’Brien also continued to be underrated no matter where he went.
After finishing his Bucknell career, O’Brien went undrafted in the 2010 MLS Superdraft despite rave reviews at the MLS Combine in 2010. Not wanting to give up on his professional ambitions, O’Brien joined Blokhus FC, a tiny club playing in the third division of Denmark.
At Blokhus, O’Brien did what he usually does and helped his team win games and earn an unexpected promotion to the Danish First Division which was the highest standing the club has ever had. In 2011, O’Brien transferred to Sonderjyske which was one of the smallest clubs in terms of wage budgets in the Danish Superliga.
It was at Sonderjyske where O’Brien blossomed into an effective professional player as eventually he grew into becoming the focal point of the team’s midfield. Many in the Danish media expected Sonderjyske to be in a relegation battle in the 2011/12 season, but instead the club succeeded with O’Brien on the field.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about it there. It was the first club to ever give me a professional contract. I knew when I first got to Sonderjyske, I had to work hard for playing time and to become a Superliga player. After my first six months, I really figured out what I needed to do to get on the field.”
The move to Nordsjaelland is now the latest move in a career that has progressed with continuous steps up in terms of quality. Nordsjaelland is unlikely to win the Danish title again like they did last year since Copenhagen have a firm 12 point grip on first place. But Nordsjaelland currently sit respectably in second place and have a three point lead over third place Aalborg BK.
In Denmark, the second place finisher qualifies for the UEFA Champions League qualifiers and O’Brien is expected to be a big part of helping the team get there. During the long Danish winter break, the club lost a few top players including U.S. national team defender Michael Parkhurst and Ghanaian youth international midfielder Enoch Adu who O’Brien will be expected to replace.
After making the decision not to extend his contract with Sonderjyske, Nordsjaelland was always O’Brien’s top choice for a club. The process of signing with the club was drawn-out largely because it took longer than expected to sell Adu to Club Brugge but once that sale was completed, O’Brien signed with Nordsjaelland in a matter of days.
For O’Brien, it was well worth the wait to sign with his first choice.
“Originally they became my top choice when you watch how they play,” O’Brien explained. “Their style of play is something that I’ve been looking for my whole career. Ever since I was 10, I wanted to play for a club that moved the ball like them. With Enoch Adu leaving, there is obviously a hole in the midfield. He was a fantastic player so it’s not going to be an easy hole to fill. But I know that the club has high expectations of me and I have high expectations of myself to fill his role. I was just so impressed with the club and it was an easy decision when we both agreed on the contract.”
“I spoke with Kasper Hjulmand, FCN’s coach,” he added. “Before they offered me anything, we had a very long hour and a half conversation. We both realized we felt the same way and the club really does have the same ambitions that I do. I want to develop as a player and I want the club to get into Europe. I also want to get into the national team. They can provide a lot of those things for me. Kasper sees me as a central midfielder. I like playing as a number eight. I want to come back and get the ball from the defense but I’m also competent enough to move forward and score goals and create goals.”
The move to Nordsjaelland is not only a huge step for O’Brien’s Champions League ambitions but it also could be a crucial move that helps his national team ambitions.
Despite his winning consistently as a youth player, O’Brien was never capped at the youth level. Coming off a strong season in the Danish Superliga, some expected that he would earn a callup to the US national team for this past January camp but instead was overlooked by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Earning a callup is something very much on O’Brien’s mind and despite the disappointment of being left off the national team roster in January, he believes the move to Nordsjaelland will give him the opportunity to force Klinsmann’s hand.
“To be honest, I felt that I deserved something recently and I felt that I was due for a callup,” O’Brien said. “It didn’t come. But now I’m moving to Nordsjaelland where Michael Parkhurst played and is a good club that played Champions League this season. I feel that people in the national team, they have to notice now if I continue to improve and become the player I know I can be.”
O’Brien remains focused on the task and trying to continue his winning ways with Nordsjaelland and earning a spot in Champions League qualifying. It will be the biggest challenge so far in his career and it will begin on March 3 when Nordsjaelland host Horsens in their first game after the Superliga Winter break.
Brendan Nash has remained close with O’Brien since he left Bucknell and is confident that O’Brien’s history of winning will continue at Nordsjaelland.
“Whether it was Terryville, Bucknell, Blokhus, Sonderjyske, and I assume the same will happen at Nordsjaelland, coaches have to be patient with Conor to let his special qualities come out,” Nash concluded. “His special quality is answering: what do my teammates need to be successful? What do I need to do for my team to be successful? It’s not going to be picked up in two days or a week. Over time, you really appreciate what a high impact player he is. Everybody loves having him as teammate.”