I'll be completely honest with you, guys. I'm absolutely terrified that Shane O'Neill is going to finish out his career with the United States U-20 team and then make a shock move to the Irish Men's National Team for his senior career. Not really worried that it will happen, I suppose, but in the back of my mind I'm scared to death that it's going to happen.
That would be a great move for Shane, of course. Ireland isn't the best of teams and I'm willing to bet that he could star for them for years to come. But I'm a selfish American, and I think that he's not going to have to pull the 'pick the team that is worse so I'll get way more caps' stunt that so many duel-nationality players seem to go for. (We're still mad that you didn't, Rossi!)
O'Neill is currently staring for a USMNT U-20 side that has plenty of players who I think will be getting calls from the big boys team by the time the 2018 cycle is starting up. Jose Villareal, a young star for the LA Galaxy, is a good example. Luis Gil and DeAndre Yedlin also come to mind. If he was on his current form a year younger, Jack MacInerney (The American Chicharito, if Matt Doyle is to be believed!) would warrant a mention as well as I'm sure he would be on the squad. I'm obviously also biased towards U-20 alternate Dillon Serna, whose name could come up as the US seeks their replacement for Landon Donovan to drive the offense in the middle of the park some day.
It's a good time to be a youthful player in general for the USMNT. I think we all know that Jurgen Klinsmann has used the cycle leading up to Brazil, his first cycle in charge of the team, as a bit of a reloading and reevaluating stage for just about everything that the US currently has. Names we never thought we would see out of the team, like Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra, have been removed for guys like Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi. Nobody has a safe job right now, and by the time the cycle for Russia starts, there will likely be plenty of room for a flood of fresh-faced youngsters to invade the team, just as younger guys like Fabian Johnson, Terrence Boyd, Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez and others have done at the tail end of this cycle.
It should be even more of a youth movement this time around, with 18-22 year old players getting the calls instead of 24-27 year old players. Essentially, we should start getting to the point soon where our best players don't have to graduate from the U-23's before ever sniffing the senior team, which has frustratingly been the norm for years, it seems. Shane O'Neill, barring a disaster, should be among that group of pioneers.
But wait, does he have the same ceiling as the other youngsters that currently hold the center back spots down, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler? I don't see why not. Gonzalez is 24 and Besler is 26 -- the levels of play that we see them at right now are at least close to the ceilings they're probably going to hit in their primes. (Before you panic or accuse me of downplaying those two, that's not a bad thing for the US right now. I think their lack of cohesion in the caps they've had has had nothing to do with a lack of talent -- they both have incredible and Europe-worthy amounts of that -- but rather a lack of experience. I fully expect both to be in fine form once we've hit Brazil since they'll have a bunch more caps under their belts.) I think we're close to knowing just how good they'll be in the end, but it's still an unknown with Shane.
That's not to say that I don't think a higher ceiling can happen for him, though.
In O'Neill's case, he's only 19 years old. At 19, he's a starter on the MLS team that has allowed the second-fewest goals in the league through 14 games played. He's looked mighty good while doing so as well, and has to go down as one of the best homegrown signings on the year right alongside DeAndre Yedlin for this season. (Yedlin, of course, is a similarly fantastic player that should be in consideration for the revolving door that has been the right back spot for the USMNT in a few years.) Most importantly, the Rapids have yet to lose a single game that he has started. That ain't too shabby for a kid that wasn't expected to start getting regular playing time for a few years at the earliest, playing a position that he really had never played prior to this season.
Even if he sits pat on the talent and skill level he has right now, he might have an outside shot at sneaking in a cap or six later in his career for the USMNT. There's plenty of chance that he eventually matures into one of the best center backs in MLS, though, with the rate that he's been growing with the few big-league appearances he's been given. Who's the best center back in MLS right now? Probably either Besler or Gonzalez. Klinsmann has shown a willingness to check MLS for his team -- if he didn't, we wouldn't have watched Brad Evans of all people knock in a winner against Jamaica! -- and it's up to Shane to make it happen.
It doesn't hurt that he's been doing quite well for the USMNT U-20 side, either. He started every game of those World Cup qualification games and didn't make many mistakes all the while, and only skipped their last time out because the Rapids had to request his services to get around injuries.
If Shane can continue on the blazingly fast train to the top he's already been riding, he'll be on track for American stardom in no time at all. People may not have watched him much, since he plays for the boring ol' Rapids, but they should know his name soon enough. Let's say... 2015?