Saving the Day

By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor

When it comes to soccer, few individuals his age are more dedicated to the sport than lifelong Palisadian Connor O’Brien. Following in the footsteps of his sister Courtney, he is excited to begin the next phase of his life bolstered by his training with the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy. A lifelong Palisadian from Pacific View Estates and a senior at Brentwood School, he lives in the “pressure cooker” world of a goalkeeper, where one save can determine the team’s fate. Whereas his sister excelled at scoring goals, he specializes in preventing them. And as Courtney just finished her collegiate career at Princeton University, Connor will soon be beginning  his own at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I first joined the US Soccer Developmental Academy when I was brought over to Real So Cal as an eighth grader in 2015,” O’Brien recalls. “For the first year I was a Designated Player, which allowed me to play with a club team that was my age group and play up an age group for the Academy team when I was called up for a game. So I got game experience while also train with the Academy players.”

The schedule is rigorous, but O’Brien thrives on it:

“We typically train at least three times a week over in Westlake. If we don’t have a game on the weekend we’ll have a morning practice on Saturday or Sunday. It usually takes about 50 minutes to drive to our home field at Oak Park High. A typical day for me includes goalkeeper training at the start of  practice where the goalies separate from the rest of our team and work with our keeper coach. We start off with drills that prioritize footwork and handling and as we get warmed up we progress into drills where we face more difficult shots on goal. We tend to have a focus for something we intend to improve on each day so we can really fine-tune our skillsets.”

O’Brien started playing AYSO at Will Rogers State Park at the age of 4. Growing up he tried every sport—flag football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, tennis and of course soccer.

“Every coach I ever had told me I was the most competitive player they’d ever coached.” O’Brien says. “Even if it was a Palisades Recreation Center game I always played like I was in the NBA Finals or the World Cup final.”

Although soccer was his sport of choice, his position was arrived at by chance. He intended to be a striker like his sister, that is until he put on the goalie gloves.   

“When I was 8 I decided I wanted to play club soccer so I tried out for Santa Monica United and made the team as a forward,” he remembers. “My team didn’t have a goalkeeper so as we started playing other teams we would rotate our goalies. When it was my turn to get in goal I made save after save and we were never scored on. Even though I loved forward I started training as a goalkeeper and never looked back. I’m often asked how I handle the pressure but I feel that’s when I’m at my best. My goal is always to win and I can have a direct impact on that by doing everything in my power to stop the ball from crossing the line.”

O’Brien’s cerebral approach to the game gets him up early every morning contemplating ways to gain a mental edge.

“I love everything about the comraderie and beauty of the sport,” he says. “To me, there’s nothing like the way the ball travels in the air and the way I can control the ball like it’s on a string. Connecting passes across the field is like an artist’s paintbrush traveling across their canvas.”

While Courtney got to enjoy a stellar prep career at Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City, Connor has been unable to play at Brentwood, one downside to being in the Academy.

“I definitely wish I got the chance to play high school soccer primarily because it would be super fun to play with some of my best friends,” O’Brien admits. “I chose to go to Brentwood because I thought it would be the best place for me to get a great education while also being able to continue playing Academy. I was enticed by Loyola and Harvard-Westlake, but they’re both so far from home and everyone who knows me knows I love to get as much sleep as I can!”

In April, O’Brien backstopped his Real SoCal squad to the championship of the Galaxy Cup Developmental Academy tournament in Irvine.

“Winning the Galaxy Cup last Spring was an incredible experience,” he says. “Playing on the beautiful stadium field made the final even more intense. The play that stood out the most was when Jake Means (a UC Irvince commit) scored the game-winner in overtime in the final. The build-up included me picking off a ball from a corner kick and distributing it to my left back, who drove down the left sideline and passed to Jake, who volleyed into the top corner. The crowd went crazy and the whole team ran to the corner flag to celebrate.”

O’Brien weighed all of his college options before picking Washington University, announcing his decision last month.

“I chose Washington University because of the incredible education it offers while also not limiting what its athletes can pursue,” says O’Brien, who spent the week in Japan with his sister (she is there to do research for her senior thesis comparing how different countries regulate stem cell therapy). “After talking and visiting with coaches all over the country it was difficult to decide where I wanted to spend my next four years. The balance of academics and sports was what pulled me in.”

O’Brien may consider playing professionally in Europe after earning his degree, having trained and played a few summers ago with AS Roma in Italy, but his immediate goal is winning a national championship at Wash U.

“The most valuable advice I’ve gotten from Courtney was to appreciate it all while you can,” he adds. “One night she asked why I looked so discouraged and I told her how practice went. She said the only way you get better and prove yourself is by enjoying the process. To young athletes: If you aren’t having a good time in all the drills you’re limiting your potential. Be prepared and don’t depend on luck to carry you.”