COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Few 19-year-olds have started 10 MLS games so far this season. Even fewer of them have started multiple games in multiple positions this year. And arguably no other 19-year-old has made the kind of impact Colorado Rapids defender Shane O’Neill has made so far in 2013.
The Rapids are an astonishing 5-0-5 in the 10 games the baby-faced center/right back has started so far this season, while going 2-7-1 in the other 10, perhaps giving the Rapids their own lucky four-leaf clover in the Ireland-born, Boulder, Colo.-raised O’Neill.
Sure, there is a large degree of luck involved in that statistic – one player can’t single-handedly win or lose a game. But the aggressive and surprisingly pacey O’Neill’s impact has been hard to replicate, and now the Homegrown product faces his latest challenge as he transitions to right back.
“I want to keep improving my performances,” O’Neill told MLSsoccer.com after Sunday's 0-0 draw with D.C. United. "[This] was my first where I should’ve been a little bit better. All year, I’ve been pretty happy with my performances, but not [Sunday].”
Change isn’t exactly new to the Fairview High School product. A two-sport star in high school, O’Neill spent the majority of his time at holding midfield before US Under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos decided to try him out at center back last fall. O’Neill thrived in the new role, then during the Rapids’ preseason, head coach Oscar Pareja took Ramos’ idea and switched O’Neill to center back as well.
Following a long-term knee injury to starter Diego Calderón, O’Neill slotted into the center back spot for Colorado, helping anchor a surprisingly effective defense while seamlessly pairing with captain Drew Moor in the heart of the backline.
“He’s a smart kid, even though he’s young,” Moor said of O’Neill on Sunday. “He wants to do well. He commits himself into tackles, he commits himself into headers, and he’s just solid. He keeps the play in front of him, he doesn’t overthink things.”
After O’Neill returned from the U-20 World Cup late last month, where he scored a goal in two starts, newcomer Germán Mera had assumed O’Neill’s old center-back spot. But Pareja was still determined to find a spot in the starting 11 for O’Neill, so he switched him out wide to right back in place of struggling veterans Marvell Wynne and Brian Mullan.
While the transition to right back proved bumpy at times in Colorado’s scoreless draw on Sunday night against D.C. United – O’Neill received an early yellow card and nearly received another early in the second half, forcing Pareja to pull the youngster – Colorado’s head coach believes he has what it takes to succeed at right back, just as he’d done in his other two other previous spots on the field.
“The best part that I have from Shane is his aggressiveness and his determination and his toughness in the game,” Pareja said on Sunday. “And if I take that away from him, then that’s a big piece of the game. He was hesitating because he’s young.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.