Shane O’Neill – Playing MLS and US National Team Soccer

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Shane O’Neill currently plays as a center back for the Colorado Rapids in the MLS and was voted Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, despite missing nine games through injury. He was signed by them from their Development Academy in 2012 and has become a regular on the first team. In October he captained the U23 National Team and he was called up to the full senior team in January of this year. Before the Rapids, Shane was offered a full ride at the University of Virginia and played at Fairview High School, where he scored 48 goals and was both soccer and basketball player of the year for the region.

After a relatively bright start, the Rapids struggled in the second half, without winning since July. As a player, how do you stay focused and try to turn around situations like that?

Obviously injuries played a part in that, which made things difficult. When you lose confidence as a group it can be really tough to come back from. We train every day and work as hard as we can. There is also a lot of communication on the field, which is key – trying to bring everyone through it. There are certain players that step up with that part – we brought in Zat Knight towards the end of the season and he was huge at the communication piece. At the end of the day though, the whole group of guys on the field need to believe in the same purpose though.

The recent call up to captain the U23 National team and being voted Defensive Player of the Year capped off what was a strong year for you individually. How happy are you with your performances on the field?

Honestly, I was happier with how I played last year. Getting injured this year threw off my groove quite a bit in the middle of the season but getting the award was certainly a bright spot. Getting to go to Brazil [with the U23 National Team]was also good but at the same time I would like to look for more consistency in my performances moving forward.

What goals do you have for the next few years?

I haven’t written anything down or anything like that, but maybe I will. I’ve been trying to work hard and improve my game, and I feel like when you have a good game as a player you know it – you can feel it after the game – and you don’t need someone to tell you you played well. It was tough this season where I was doing alright and holding my own but I want to start excelling at this level and having good individual performances.

What does a typical week look like for you during the season?

We play Saturday night and usually have Sunday off. Monday we come in and have a light regen[eration]day; Tuesday we train pretty hard; Wednesday is usually one of the tougher sessions; Thursday we do 11v11 to shape out the team for the weekend – so by Thursday you know whether you are in the squad or not; and Friday we might have a small walk through, do some set pieces, and watch videos. Once you’re in the middle of the season there is a definite rhythm to it. We train in the mornings at 10am, then usually relax in the evenings.

What do you do in the off season?

Last year I trained all through the offseason, which I think hurt me: I was fit but my body needed a break. I think my injury had a cause and effect with not taking a break, so this offseason I’m going to approach things differently. I’m going to have a week or two to take a break and relax to rest things up. Then come the end of November I’ll probably go over to Europe to train in maybe a couple of places. I’ll come back here for the holidays then hopefully get a national team call up but we’ll see how that goes.

Do players do community work as a team or individually?

We have to do 5-6 events each year I think. We will have appearances at underprivileged schools and read at libraries. This weekend for example I have a walk for diabetes where I will take part in the walk.

How much do they control what you eat and drink? How about sleep?

Actually no. Last season when I got called into the national team we had to wear an armband 24 hours a day that showed how much you slept, how tired you were and so on, but with the Rapids it was more about us getting tested for amino acids and so on, to see how well we recovered from games. We would go on 30 minute jogs wearing heart rate monitors in different zones of exertion. We have nutritionists who help with what we are eating and drinking – especially if you are not in good shape.

How do you travel to away games? Is there a routine for the trips?

If we’re playing a team on the East Coast or in the Eastern Time Zone we will fly out two days early to acclimatize, so usually we fly on the Thursday and maybe do a bike and stretching session at the hotel. Friday we’ll go to the pitch to train. All of our meals are provided throughout the trip. Usually we fly out Sunday morning unless we are playing very early on Saturday. For West Coast games we will fly out Friday and train that same day in Denver before leaving.

Do players get paid enough to just play for the Rapids, or are there some with other jobs?

They are all full time.

Soccer is not something you play professionally until 65 years old. Do players look long term about what they will do afterwards for income?

It depends on the player. Obviously it would be the best idea to be looking long term but there is a lot that goes into the season and you want to be focused. I think in the off season it is easier to look at that. As I have just turned 21 it isn’t something I have thought about and hopefully I don’t have to for a while. It does go by quickly though so everyone should have a plan in place. Players like me especially since I didn’t go to college I would probably look into the coaching field. I don’t think I would enjoy coaching at the professional level. I think younger levels I would quite a bit though.

Brian Crookham told us that they offer funding for players who want to do college on the side. Do many take up that opportunity?

It was in my contract but I decided to take the money rather than take the college education part. There are 2-3 players on the team that I know of who take classes, but you also have to pass – you can’t just take the courses. The one guy I know only takes 1-2 classes each semester so it doesn’t interfere too much with his training schedule.

When you train with the National Team is there a big difference in level or attitude when compared to the Rapids? How about at Fulham?

It was different. Maybe the National Team is at a higher level but the main thing is being fit. There was a huge emphasis at the January camp on being extremely fit. You would have double sessions and be absolutely shot afterwards. Going in to the camp I would have done better if I had been more prepared for the fitness requirements. I wasn’t unfit but I wasn’t at my peak at that point which I think might have affected my performance. At Fulham the intensity at the training session was extremely high: it wasn’t out of place at all for two players to get injured at training almost every day. Over there they really embrace this being your whole life – they don’t go to school – and they are really fighting for it. It’s definitely getting to be that way over here too.

Do players who have been through the teenage national team programs have an advantage?

It’s great if you are involved at the lower age group teams but I think there are a lot of players who hadn’t been through there. Many of them develop later on – 18, 19, 20 years old – and some players who go through the youth system might lose their desire and don’t have that same chip on their shoulder that the later ones have. Deandre Yedlin completely burst on to the scene in that way. We were at the January camp together and the next thing you know he’s playing at the World Cup.

How important is it for players now to be in a Development Academy?

It’s crucial now to be at a Development Academy it seems like. You’re playing against the best opponents there. I’m not saying it’s the right thing but it is the way it is. In terms of academies in Colorado you can’t really beat the Rapids either, as it is fully funded, and if you’re doing well you get a look in with the reserves and if you do well there you could get to the first team. It should be only for the right age though – I’m not convinced that a U12 or U14 academy is imperative. Playing at that level is a big commitment – I didn’t start it until halfway through my junior year at high school. I think if I had started in my freshman year I might have gotten burned out a little bit quicker. My first professional season was the first time I had played soccer full time and I think that helped me a lot.

How important was playing high school for you and balancing soccer with basketball, which you also lead the school at?

That to me is the big loss: players should be allowed to play high school soccer still. At the Development Academy I was able to work on my technique and play against the best players, but at high school you play with a different passion and you are the leader of the team so you learn other aspects of the game around that. The motivation to balance it is there when you are playing in front of your friends because you have the passion for it. Not doing that any more is a big loss.

Did you watch the game when you were young? Which team do you follow?

Chelsea has always been my team. When I was younger I liked Damien Duff when he was a Chelsea.

Your dad coaches and played high level sports and all of your brothers and sisters play. Did you grow up in a sport environment?

Yes, I think it helped quite a bit. It gave me the competitive edge of never wanting to lose to my brother.

Why do you think you succeeded ahead of others from your club and high school teams? Did you play outside of organized training?

I think when Oscar Pareja got hired at the Rapids it was a great fit for me because he really emphasized intensity, bite and desire and I think those are the main things that I bring to the game. I might not have the best technique but I play with extreme passion. Especially as a defender I play 100% all of the time and I think that is what took me to the top level. Now I am trying to learn the smaller intricate parts of the game that I think will take me higher, but I definitely think it was work rate that has taken me this far.

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