After missing the first week of the international Under-20 Toulon Tournament in France, Colorado Rapids defender Shane O'Neill has joined the U.S. U-20 side ahead of the team's final two matches. O'Neill is hoping the two games is enough to show U.S. coach Tab Ramos that he should occupy one of the team's 21 roster spots at the FIFA U-20 World Cup later this month in Turkey.
"It's still down to hard work," O'Neill said after playing 90 minutes for the Rapids in the 2-2 draw against Dallas last Saturday. "I can't be taking this opportunity lightly, I'm still only 19. I want to get as good at this position as possible and who knows where it can take me. So I have to come in with the same attitude everyday, going 100 per cent. It'll be tough, but I'm just going to have to push myself and see what I can do. I'm excited for the challenge, that's the whole point of being on the national team."
A year ago, the Ireland-born, Boulder, Colo.-raised defender had just finished his senior year at Boulder’s Fairview high school. After the Rapids made him their third-ever Homegrown signing in mid-June, O’Neill – then a holding midfielder – caught the eye of Ramos, who then brought the lanky midfielder to the 2012 Marbella Cup in October.
Ramos, however, saw a center back in the strong 6-foot-2 former standout basketball player, and that’s where he’s played through most of his time with the U-20s - including as a starter in all five matches of the CONCACAF Championships, which secured the U.S. its place in Turkey.
O’Neill has since become a regular in the backline for the Rapids, starting eight of the last nine games he’s been available to play in as the team has gone 4-0-4 during when he has started. The experience gained allowed him to arrive in France with a different mentality and confidence than he did in his previous U-20 meetups.
"Playing in MLS week-in and week-out since I got back has been huge," O'Neill said. "It's a great confidence builder for myself. The last few (camps) I was going in thinking "maybe I'm on this team, maybe I'm not." But now I think I have a good chance of being a solidified starter on the team."
O’Neill only has six U-20 caps leading into this week, and he accepts that he’s still got plenty to work on like playing confidently in tight games and passing out of the back.
"I still have a ways to go," he said. "But I think I've definitely improved, and just to get the experience is invaluable. You have to be on the field to experience it. The body positioning, and things I was struggling with in camp, there's nothing to fix that other than being on the field to see what you have to do to manage it. So it's been huge that I've been able to get those games."
So far in Toulon the U-20s have lost to France (4-1) and Colombia (2-1) and defeated Congo DR 1-0. O'Neill's Rapids teammate Dillon Serna has played in all three matches, including one start as he, too, is aiming to be on the World Cup squad. They play South Korea on June 5 and a consolation game later in the week.
"It's always an honor to be on the national team," said O'Neill. "Playing with the U.S. at the Under-20 level is going to be a huge experience, so I'm excited about that. But, yea, it's definitely a little disappointing to be missing however MLS games it is. Tab (Ramos) is a great coaching in building confidence in players already, so hopefully I can come back even better."
The FIFA U-20 World Cup begins on June 21 and ends on July 13.