Mile High Sports

Circuitous Center Back: Shane O’Neill’s journey through soccer continues

This article originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

The town of Blackpool sits on the coast of northwest England’s Lancashire County, hard on the Irish Sea. So cold, it’s a sea only a harp seal could love. Blackpool’s status as a major tourist destination in the late 19th century has slid nearly off the British traveler’s radar. On a cold, windy day in mid-January, it is no wonder that its wide expanse of beach and scruffy boardwalk are nearly void of mankind.

Walking along the pier, however, is a 22-year-old American. Wearing a gray hooded parka and black pants, he looks more ready for skiing in his native Colorado than sunbathing in England. Only the orange soccer cleats he clutches give away why he is in this godforsaken town in the middle of winter.

Shane O’Neill stares out at the ocean, as empty and cold as his soccer career has been the last year. Barely two years after being named Young Player of the Year by the Colorado Rapids, barely a year after being named Rapids Defensive Player of the Year, the Boulder native is standing on the English coast holding his cleats but no contract.

“These last six months have been really tough mentally,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t feel like a soccer player anymore.”

In eight months he has gone from – grab your atlas – Colorado to Cyprus to Belgium to suburban London to Blackpool to an English town you’ve never heard of. This story, however, has a happy ending. On Feb. 1, hours before the international transfer window closed, his agents tired of waiting for a contract from Fleetwood Town FC – if you know of this third-division English club you really must get out more – after he trained there for a week. He signed with Cambridge United. It’s in the fourth division, but the club is as excited about O’Neill as he is about stepping on a field for something besides cone drills.

“I’m happy,” he says. “I’m happy just to get it sorted out.”

If pro sports are the dream of any young athlete, O’Neill learned the seamy, cruel side of pro sports, still as a young athlete. Cast adrift by his home-state Rapids, away from his family, he spent four months in a country where no one spoke his language and eight months without playing a club game. He’s not asking for sympathy or handouts. The club in Cyprus, even though he has never set foot on the island, is still paying his six-figure salary. That will buy a lot of fish and chips in Blackpool. But at an age when many soccer players are on college scholarship or working their way up the pro ranks, O’Neill spent much of 2015 and the start of 2016 with, well, his cleats in his hand.

“It’s definitely been an education,” he says. “Just seeing the other side of it, it’s really crazy. There is so much more to the game than you see. So many things go on, things people don’t know about.”

Welcome to the world of pro soccer where yesterday’s star is tomorrow’s beachcomber.

***

The 2015 MLS season looked so very promising for O’Neill. The Rapids had firmly entrenched their Defensive Player of the Year on their back line and Pablo Mastroeni was starting his first full season as head coach. They all went to training camp in Arizona that January full of optimism and energy. However, O’Neill fell ill and returned to Colorado a week early. When the season opened in March at the Philadelphia Union, he came off the bench.

Starting were Axel Sjöberg, a 6-foot-7 Swede they drafted in December out of Marquette, and 6-foot-5 veteran Bobby Burling, a Monument native whom they acquired that month off waivers from Chivas USA. They had also drafted another center back, Joel Greenspan, an ensign in the Navy.

Digging into some vegetable soup in a cozy restaurant near Fleetwood’s old ferry harbor, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound O’Neill looks more tight end than center back. He’s arms bulge from a camouflage T-shirt. His jaw juts. His blue eyes are piercing. But he’s not angry when he looks back on a tenure that went from dream to nightmare in the flick of a free kick.

“I felt I deserved to keep my spot,” he says. “Obviously, they started to move in a different direction. Looking back, maybe I took the wrong attitude. I definitely got wronged. I had proven over the years that I deserved a little bit more respect. I felt like I had done well. I never did anything to lose my spot.”

When the 2015 season was in the books, O’Neill played in only four games, all with the Rapids. During his rise in MLS – he played 52 games for the Rapids, starting 48 – he had become a fixture on national age-group teams. He left Colorado after playing in a 0-0 clean sheet against New York City FC, then left for Europe with the U.S. Under-23 team and played friendlies at Denmark and Bosnia. When he returned, he sat on the bench against the New England Revolution. The Rapids lost, 2-0.

Dallas came next. He figured he’d play to strengthen the defense. Mastroeni even said he’d play. He didn’t. Colorado rolled, 4-0. Suddenly, the writing on the wall was not O’Neill’s name in the Rapids’ future.

“That was a big turning point,” O’Neill says. “From that point on, I was on the outside looking in. That’s when I realized that maybe I wanted to leave.”

The Rapids say moving O’Neill to Europe was always part of the grand plan. Paul Bravo, Rapids vice president and technical director, said that ever since O’Neill arrived to the Rapids’ youth academy from Fairview High School he expressed a desire to play in Europe. He has European roots. His father, Colm, who owns Conor O’Neill’s Irish pub in Boulder, was a Gaelic footballer in his native Ireland. His sons – Darragh punted for Colorado, and Enda is a sophomore defender at Wisconsin – spent numerous summers in Ireland, and Shane has dual citizenship.

O’Neill’s contract was also up after the 2016 season. Figuring O’Neill would hop to Europe when he could, the Rapids started stockpiling reinforcements on the back line. The season became a disaster. They finished last in the Western Conference at nine wins, 15 losses and 10 ties. However, only five teams in the 20-team league gave up fewer than the Rapids’ 43 goals. Defense wasn’t the problem.

O’Neill was stuck.

“We had players that had stepped up and done some good things for us on that back line,” Bravo says. “It’s a situation where you have to fight and scratch and battle to get that first-team spot back. In the world of player development, players have the idea that the development path is always smooth, a nice and steady rise to reach the top of the mountain. In reality there is a development process, whether that’s technically or tactically or, more important, psychologically.”

O’Neill and his father wanted answers. Colm even set up a meeting with Bravo. “Ringing the Rapids is like ringing the Vatican to try to get them to say a couple of swear words,” Colm says. When they finally met Colm was told they’d seen an attitude dip in Shane.

“I’ll be totally honest,” Shane says. “Now that I have time to look back, I could’ve done a bit more. I could have given a bit more. I took the wrong attitude, truthfully. That taught me a lesson.”

The problem was, where was he going to show what he had learned? How about a place where he doesn’t understand what anyone says and no one can understand him?

***

Mouscron, Belgium, is a cheap cab ride from the French border in the area of southwest Belgium they call Wallonia. Wallonia is full of beautiful and historical sites. The Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon lost his emperor’s title and 32,000 lost their lives, was fought here. There is pretty undulating farmland, attractive rural getaways and fun brewery towns.

Mouscron is none of these things.

Mouscron (pronounced MOOSE-croon, pop. 56,000) is a small, gray, industrial city that will never even reach the delete button of a travel guide. It’s known for a medieval castle, textile plants and only four hotels. Its ubiquitous main square, anchored by a 126-year-old Town Hall, is blighted by parked cars. The houses have a drab similarity that combined with Wallonia’s gloomy weather makes Mouscron one of the pits of a country renowned for its chocolate and beer.

Mouscron is also known for having a lousy soccer team. However, Royal Mouscron-Peruwelz is in the Jupiler League, Belgium’s first division. With Belgium’s national team ranked No. 1 in the world, Mouscron figured to be a good launching pad for O’Neill’s future abroad. Bravo, seeing “an opportunity for Shane to realize his dream,” sold him Aug. 7 to Apollon Limassol in Cyprus’ First Division. It quickly flipped him to Mouscron for more playing time.

Arriving in Mouscron, O’Neill could not have felt more out of place if he signed with FC Mars.

“I get to Mouscron and obviously it made me cringe,” he says. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I’d go to the local coffee shop and people my age would not understand one word of English. That was really, really frustrating.”

O’Neill arrived with more going against him than just the language. He signed Aug. 31, six weeks after training camp opened. He then immediately went to the U.S. U-23 camp in England where he played a friendly against England. Then something happened. Oddly, his head felt funny. He thought he had a concussion. He sat out a friendly against Qatar then returned to Mouscron where he practiced a week before realizing his equilibrium wasn’t right.

His uncle, a doctor, came over from Ireland and diagnosed an ear infection. He didn’t get back on the field until Oct. 15. Here he was in a strange country trying to jumpstart his career with no verbal communication skills. The club, fighting relegation, didn’t trust a 22-year-old to help on the back line.

He never appeared in a game.

“So much goes on behind the scenes in European football,” O’Neill says. “I went in there and I don’t know if the coach really wanted me. We didn’t dislike each other but I don’t think he trusted me at all to play. I don’t think he ever gave me a chance to get to know how I play.”

Meanwhile, he watched a lot of good Belgian soccer from the stands and studied French in his hotel. Bon chance!

“There was a supermarket and they spoke zero English,” he says. “I bought a bunch of things. For some reason the person behind the cashier couldn’t understand that I was trying to tell her, that I needed a bag for my stuff. I swear we were there for 10 minutes. The thing is, in Belgium, everybody brings their own bag. You have to buy this heavy-duty suitcase thing to carry your groceries and they were in the back of the store.

“I’d been there three weeks in the hotel and was run down by the French language. Things on the field weren’t going well.

“Just give me a bag for my groceries.”

He soon moved to an apartment in nearby Kortrijk, a university town packed with pubs. How convenient. As O’Neill says with a smile, “I think a lot of people would turn to drink right now.”

He didn’t, but he had plenty of free time. He hadn’t even gone from the stands to the bench. By the time December rolled around, he says, “It was finished for me.” He asked the club if he could go home for Christmas as the players weren’t off until Dec. 26. When he came in the next day, the club said it had terminated his contract. They wanted to give him a chance to play elsewhere.

O’Neill happily skipped home to Boulder. Meanwhile, Royal Mouscron-Peruwelz was getting crushed like a Belgian waffle, losing four straight by a combined 8-0. They were tied with the fewest points for the lone relegation spot in the league.

“He came so late,” said sporting director Yuri Selak, not ironically at the Jan. 20 introductory press conference for new coach Glen de Boeck who replaced the fired Cedomir Janevski. “If he came for preparation the 15th of June with the team – but he arrived the 31st of August. We had no more friendly games to try him. That was his biggest problem.

“Then we had the [Belgian] Cup game and that time the coach chose another player. I wanted the coach to let him play but he told me that he thinks he’s not ready to play.”

O’Neill’s Christmas spirit disappeared with the Christmas décor, and the lights began dimming on his season. It was approaching 2016 and he had no contract. When teams called his agents, they asked one question.

Why didn’t he play in Belgium?

“The only bad thing was I didn’t play,” he says. “The only bad thing is not knowing what’s next.”

***

His London-based agents are connected throughout the myriad of English leagues which stretch from the Premier League to pub leagues played on goat pastures. In early January, they sent him on a weeklong tryout to Reading, a frequent Premiership club now in the second-division Football League Championship. It had a plethora of center backs and didn’t sign him.

They then told him that Fleetwood Town FC in the third division wanted him. Go up, show you’re fit and sign. You need to play. Sure, O’Neill says. One question.

Where the hell is Fleetwood Town?

A driver took him the three-and-a-half-hour journey from London to Blackpool, just seven miles down the coast from Fleetwood and where players stay when they arrive. They all come to a hostel-type building where O’Neill and the driver arrived at about 8 p.m. This is Northern England in January. It’s the same latitude as southern Alaska. It had been pitch black for three hours.

“The door is locked,” O’Neill says. “Me and the driver are pressing buttons. And. We. Are. Freezing. What is going on? We keep smacking buttons, knocking on the door, knocking on the window.

“After about 10 minutes, we are just fuming and freezing. This guy comes out: ‘HOW MANY [BLEEPING] TIMES ARE YOU GOING TO RING THE BELL?’ He’s screaming! ‘I’M HAVING MY BLOODY DINNER!’ ‘Both of us are freezing out here and you wouldn’t open your door because you’re eating your dinner?’”

Fleetwood (pop. 25,000) is a failed deep sea fishing and ferry port town that’s propping itself up economically with summer day-trippers. Its lighthouse, built in 1840, anchors an oceanfront lined with the kind of thistle you see swallowing golf balls during various British Opens. St. Tropez this is not.

He trained his first day, and the club didn’t offer a contract. They said they wanted to watch him for a week. O’Neill looked around and didn’t really care.

“I don’t think my heart was really into it,” O’Neill says. “I was like, I don’t know if this is for me, especially after the whole Belgian thing.”

He’s asked about his options. He pauses and can’t come up with any. Meanwhile, he’s talking to his old teammates on the Rapids who tell him he has only one option.

“I think Shane has all the qualities you need to be a top-class defender,” says goalkeeper Clint Irwin, whom the Rapids traded to Toronto FC Jan. 18. “He reads the game well. He’s strong, physical, has good pace. He just needs to find some games at this point. It’s an adventure in Europe. Just settle down and find some matches.”

O’Neill settled down and for 10 days he practiced. Fleetwood finally said it would call his agents Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m. with the contract offer. They didn’t. If he didn’t sign that day, he’d need a country that had a longer international transfer window.

Hey, Shane, forget your French. How’s your Ukrainian?

His agent finally called and said Cambridge United offered him a firm deal. With time running out, sign. The bad news is it’s League Two, or fourth division. The good news is it’s chasing a playoff berth for promotion to Fleetwood Town’s League One and Fleetwood is in the relegation zone.

Also, Cambridge, just 60 miles north of London, is not Fleetwood. Combine the campuses of Notre Dame and Princeton, add centuries-old Gothic architecture and some of the best pubs in the United Kingdom and you have Cambridge.

“It’s England,” says O’Neill who didn’t play in his first two games with Cambridge United. “Everyone wants to play in England. The lower leagues are really a good opportunity. It has lots and lots of good players. It’s just about taking the showcase and helping the team win and hopefully play. I need that feeling back.”

He still has supporters from the clubs he left behind. Bravo still says of him: “Physically he can handle any forward in the league. He can turn. He can run. He can cover across the line. He has a special skill set which not too many center backs have. Usually you get one that’s good on the tactical side but lacks athleticism. Shane has a great base to work from in all areas.”

Adds Mouscron’s Selak: “He’s a strong player. Physically, he was incredible. He was one of the players that had the most physical potential.”

He’s also only 22. Only one Cambridge regular is younger. Where O’Neill’s potential takes him next season – Cyprus? A higher division in England? Back to MLS? – will be determined by how he does until May. This has been an education that no athlete could have whiffed at in college. In pro soccer, you learn a lot more than just how to defend strikers with lasers in their legs.

“One of the most important things is you have to be your own best advocate,” O’Neill says. “Obviously, sometimes in life you think things are going to happen because of this or that and obviously sometimes it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes you have to really stand up for yourself and say what you’re thinking.

“But at the same time, you can’t always think the hills are always greener.”

In England, the hills are always green. It’s up to O’Neill to determine how much green will be in his future. 

John Henderson (@JohnHendeRome) is a freelance writer based in Rome. Read his travel blog, Dog-Eared Passport, at www.johnhendersontravel.com.