When center back Shane O’Neilljoined the Seattle Sounders in mid-January, he, like the club, was excited to start the season, one filled with hope of defending MLS Cup and the promise of CONCACAF Champions League. Less than two months later, the COVID-19 global pandemic hit and everything came to a halt.
The challenges, stress and anxiety were myriad for anyone, but especially for someone like O’Neill, who had just moved across the country and was still adjusting to life in a new city, bereft of close friends and family.
“It was definitely a tough time,” O’Neill said.
Being by himself in a new place wasn’t entirely a new experience for O’Neill. He was at one time a bright youth international prospect and had always dreamed of playing in Europe.
O’Neill was born in Midleton, Ireland, the son of a former Gaelic football player. Once his father’s career ended, he won a lottery for a United States green card and got his MBA at the University of Michigan before moving to Houston for a year. O’Neill’s mother wanted to return to Ireland, but his father wanted one last chance in the U.S., and he moved his family to Boulder, Colo., where O’Neill grew up.
O’Neill defends former Sounders midfielder Brad Evans while with the Rapids in 2013
He featured for the United States U-20 national team at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup a year after signing as an 18-year-old Homegrown Player for the Colorado Rapids. He spent four years with Colorado before joining Cypriot club Apollon Limassol in 2015.
O’Neill never featured for Apollon. Shortly after his transfer, he went on loan to Belgian side Royal Excel Mouscron, but never made an appearance before going on loan again to English League Two side Cambridge United where he played just 68 minutes in two matches.
“My first year in Europe was a bust,” he said candidly. “It was a tough, tough year. More so off the field. My whole life I wanted to go over to Europe, and when you go over to Europe by yourself at such a young age and you get hit in the face of the realities of it, it’s a wake-up call. You dream of this one thing your whole life and when you get there, you realize it’s a lot harder and not as glamorous as you thought it would be.”
O’Neill could have returned to the United States following the 2015/16 European season, but he buckled down and was determined to make things right. He called the following year in Europe the most impactful of his career. He went on loan again to NAC Breda in the Dutch second division and made 23 starts to help lead Breda to promotion.
“When you’re over in Europe by yourself and don’t have people to lean on, that’s all you have,” he said. “All you have is the game and committing fully to it. That’s what I take away more than anything.”
O’Neill battles future teammate Raúl Ruidíaz while with Orlando City in 2019
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O’Neill returned to Major League Soccer in 2018 after a one-year stint with Dutch side Excelsior, in which he featured only once. His return stateside was a mixed bag, as he made 24 appearances over two seasons for an Orlando City SC side that finished 11th place in the Eastern Conference each season. What O’Neill was looking forward to the most about signing with the Sounders was the opportunity to contribute on a successful team.
“There’s that feeling every single day that when you step onto the pitch, the expectation to win challenges you to have to perform at your best consistently,” O’Neill said. “One of the best things about being at the Sounders is that you get to test yourself against some of the best players in MLS on a daily basis.”
Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer spoke recently about the battles in training that O’Neill has with forward Raúl Ruidíaz, the big-money Designated Player forward who is one of the most dominant goalscorers in MLS. Schmetzer said O’Neill and Ruidíaz go toe-to-toe every practice and that O’Neill doesn’t back off or let Ruidíaz off easy, and Ruidíaz appreciates that because it makes them both better.
“He gets called into the Peruvian national team and is starting games,” O’Neill said of Ruidíaz. “Why wouldn’t I want to measure myself against a guy like that every day?”
This process has made O’Neill into a formidable force this season, as he’s had a far bigger impact than perhaps many people on the outside would have expected. He is fighting for playing time alongside a talented center back pairing of Yeimar and Xavier Arreaga, as well as the recently reacquired Román Torres. But it’s been O’Neill quietly shining, as he has 10 starts and 15 appearances for the Western Conference’s best team, one that owns the joint-best defensive record.
O’Neill against the San Jose Earthquakes on Oct. 18
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“The thing that people sometimes forget is that I did have some really good years,” he said.
He also credited Schmetzer & Co. for how influential they have been to ensure that he is playing up to his potential.
“The staff has helped me so much with improving little details of my game,” he said. “There’s such an expectation to have a high standard. If you embrace that, you can become such a better player.
“I have to know my role and play to my strengths,” he continued. “That’s been a real positive thing for me this year is to be able to just focus on doing my job and not have to focus on doing much more than that.”
The success O’Neill has found so far this season in Seattle is not so much a restart or resurgence in his career. The pieces have just finally fit for him to maximize his performance, something the Sounders will be relying on down the stretch as they make a push for their 12th consecutive MLS Cup Playoffs berth and look to win their third MLS Cup title in five years.
“We have a really good bunch of players who have all won a lot of things in their careers, and that makes you have to hold yourself accountable on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t want to take any days for granted. I’m in a great situation now and I just want to make the most of it.”