O'Brien taking Burn on direct route

that's being kind -- tackle by Dema Kovalenko.

"I'm at 75 or 80 percent at the moment," he says.

Whatever he's at, O'Brien shouldn't change a thing.

With his endless, Frankie Hejduk-like motor, deft passing in the final third of the field and willingness to take chances and go to goal when others might make the lateral or negative pass, the 25-year-old Irishman has been turning heads throughout this young season.

"The biggest factors that Ronnie brings to this team are his enthusiasm and work rate," says Burn head coach Colin Clarke. "He's very direct when he gets the ball and he goes at people and makes things happen."

From his spot on the right flank in midfield, only strikers Carlos Ruiz and Damani Ralph have taken more than his 21 shots. O'Brien hasn't yet hit paydirt, but he's proven that he can hit a ball as well as anyone in the league -- even after the injury -- and is not afraid to keep the goalkeeper honest from the start, as was the case last weekend against the Los Angeles Galaxy with his attempt to beat Kevin Hartman from 50 or so yards out on a chip.

It's more than that, though. On a team that has had quite a bit of turnover the past two years, it's been O'Brien's savvy play and versatility in both the middle of the field and out wide that has helped to jump-start the Burn offense as well as aid a defense that just set a team record for consecutive shutout minutes with 380.

In fact, if one was to pick a Best XI through six weeks of MLS action, O'Brien's name would be an easy fill-in for one of the midfield slots. The Burn have received several solid performances to go 2-1-2 out of the gate after a last-place finish in 2003, but none have been larger than the contribution O'Brien has given.

"Game by game I'm starting to feel better," says O'Brien. "But sometimes I walk off the field feeling frustrated, knowing I'm not as sharp as I once was."

This is the type of overcritical self-analysis one gets after success at an early age. After all, O'Brien won a under-18 European championship with an Ireland side that featured Robbie Keane. He was already a full-fledged professional at that point, playing for Middlesbrough in the English Premiership. Being tough on yourself is also what happens after you've played with the best, even if it was for a small moment in time, which was the case for O'Brien in the summer of 1999 when he signed with vaunted Italian club Juventus and took part in their preseason.

"In my very first friendly," says O'Brien, "here is who we had in the midfield: myself playing on the right, Edgar Davids playing in the middle with Antonio Conte, and Thierry Henry on the left wing. Up front, we had (Alessandro) Del Piero and (Filippo) Inzaghi."

That's the stuff dreams are made of. But, unfortunately, sharing the field with such world stars didn't last for long, as O'Brien only made one official appearance for Juventus before starting a series of loan spells that would take him to the second and third divisions of Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, England and Scotland over a three-year span. He even crossed paths with current Chicago Fire midfielder Andy Williams when the two were both with Nottingham Forest in February 2001.

This constant moving left him frustrated and fed up with the club. That's why in 2002, O'Brien opted out of the final two years of his five-year contract with the Serie A giants even though they were still interested in his services.

"They told me that they didn't want me to leave, but it's not nice to be the new face in the dressing room all the time," he said. "When things go wrong in a club, you're always one of the ones who people look at since you were a player brought in. I just wanted to go and settle down somewhere. That's why I came to America."

Playing-wise, O'Brien has only seen action in a grand total of 25 regular season matches to go with three playoff appearances since he signed with MLS in July 2002. However, having been able to view the league in three different seasons, with last year being nearly a full-time spectator from the sideline, O'Brien has come to realize how strong the level is at compared to his expectations while playing in Europe. His best comparison would be the English First Division, where the USA's Eddie Lewis and Marcus Hahnemann play; that is, one level under the vaunted Premiership.

"Some of the better teams in this league would do well in the First Division," says O'Brien. "They might not win it, but they'd be in the top half of the league. I think every team in MLS would be between the mid-part of the table and the top. I'm not just saying that because I play in this league.

"The standard here is very good. Everyone is fit, and everyone wants to play football."

He and his wife, Vicki, have enjoyed their time so much in Dallas that going back to play in Europe isn't even on his mind right now. The same goes for playing internationally for Ireland, which could use a good right-sided midfielder. After being snubbed too many times at the U-20 and U-21 levels, O'Brien is not about to come running if he is summoned back to play for the full national team.

"I'm not interested," he says. "I have a sour taste in my mouth about it. To be honest, I don't even think about getting to the national team. It's not a great ambition for me. I'm happy playing club football, and just overall happy with my life at the moment."

That happiness comes with being on the field again, being a newlywed and, well, not losing all the time, which was the case last year. Even a known practical joke artist and team clown like O'Brien (ask Chris Gbandi what happened to his car last year) went through a real down period last season with the team's results.

"To be beaten and have people look down at you all the time is not easy," he said. "When you're playing bad, teams play confident against you. They expect to beat you. People were hurt. It hurts a lot when you are last in the league."

That's why one of the first thing that happened this preseason was a meeting with the holdovers from last year and the veterans brought in such as Steve Jolley, Eric Quill and Scott Garlick to lay down one simple message: Last year was horrible, and it's just not going to happen this year.

And it hasn't thus far.

"Since Day One, we've worked hard and we've worked hard together," said O'Brien. "We get along very well, and playing is a lot more fun this year."

Even with a steel rod in your leg.

Four quick ones

Questions for San Jose Earthquakes defender Ryan Cochrane

Most underrated player on your team: Ramiro Corrales.

Most underrated player not on your team: Kelly Gray, Chicago Fire

Best nickname on your team: "Beast" -- Troy Dayak.

Smartest advice from a coach you've ever received: Have fun when you play.

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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