Postcard from Europe: O'Brien ambitions beyond Denmark
AMSTERDAM – One probably wouldn't notice it from his excellent recent form, but studious SønderjyskE achiever Conor O'Brien (above, right) has been going through a bit of an identity crisis.
The 24-year-old New York native arrived to Danish Superliga club-on-the-rise as an attacker, having played at the No. 10 spot or on the wing all his life. When SønderjyskE "welcome" mighty FC Copenhagen for a DBU-Pokalen (Danish Cup) third round tilt on Thursday night, however, O'Brien will take up his now-typical left holding midfield slot in the team's 4-2-3-1 set.
Last year's position switch was not a coach's mandate, but the player's idea. O'Brien began staying the latest at training, hitting the weights more and doing extra running on days off to build his skill-set for a starting place.
"When I got here, there were guys ahead of me [at the attacking positions], so I decided to develop my game to be able play a little deeper," O'Brien told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Denmark. "I put in a lot of time."
If there's characteristic that stands out about O'Brien, it's that he loves running directly at learning curves. Having tackled his latest as a holding midfielder, the American is also back to making the scoresheet with some frequency. He's notched three goals and three assists in 14 games this season, with only 11 Superliga players officially involved in more scoring plays.
With his natural capabilities now blossoming at a learned position, the midfielder's been wondering if he's still an attacker.
"To be honest, I really don't know," said O'Brien before a contemplative pause that seemed to settle his identity crisis. "Now, I'm able to play anywhere in midfield.
"Now, I can control the game, keep hold of the game and the tempo for my team. I can link players and be more of a creative type instead having to score the goals."
As Benjamin Franklin once said, it is the working man who is the happy man. O'Brien has been enjoying all of his work so much that clubs up the food chain in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands haven taken notice of the winter free agent.
With extension talks broken off at SønderjyskE, O'Brien looks set to be working on a new learning curve come January – preferably one that includes Champions League or Europa League play in the curriculum.
"A lot of young players are able to come here to show off their talents and then move to a bigger club," he said. "That's been my goal from day one. Everywhere I've gone, I've improved. I'd like to challenge myself at a higher level.
"I think my abilities would translate well into Belgium and Holland, but I don't really have a dream destination. I'd like to play in any of them, but the main thing is I want to play for a team in Europe."
Wherever he goes, O'Brien also wants the next step to take him into the US national team frame. He also knows it's a steep path, given the current roster's depth in the center of the park.
"My main goal in football is to play for the national team," he stated. "I don't care where I have to go to get there, I just want to show I have the ability. I know the central midfielders in the national team are great players, but I hope [the USMNT coaching staff] has been noticing me."
The most imminent step on his winding path of ambition tests is that cup contest with FC Copenhagen. Also busy reaching for new heights as a club, SønderjyskE have fought the Lions to an even 1-1-2 split over the last seven months.
O'Brien knows that the nine-time Danish champs will see his upstarts coming this time. Luckily, the re-cast midfielder and his club know a bit about tackling increasingly larger challenges.
"That's a pretty good record to have against Copenhagen," he said proudly. "I know they'll definitely be ready for us. One of our main goals this year was to make the final of the cup, because we were so close last year. Every year, we're trying to push forward and do better."
Thanks to Maria Louise Kamann, Soenderjyskefan.dk, for photo.