The Audacity to Dream: The Story of Jordan O’Brien

For the typical American, the most sought after days of the week are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. For most, these days represent a break, relaxation, no work, personal enjoyment, etc. But for those of us in the football (soccer) world, there is no greater trio of days than Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

This particular Tuesday was special, not only because I got to watch UEFA Champions League, but because I had the chance to speak to a women’s player with Champions League experience. Since we’re equally dialed-in to UCL, our chat was purposely scheduled after the matches. Tottenham finished off Borussia Dortmund and I sat in awe as Ajax absolutely destroyed Real Madrid 4-1 (aggregate 5-3), in the Bernabeú no less. Now that business was settled, it was time for a chat.

When I was but a young lion cub, trying to find my way about this jungle called life, my father told me something that changed my perspective on life. “There are many roads that lead to Rome. Some are direct, some wind about, some might take you well out of the way… But at the end of the day, they all end in Rome.” Plans don’t always work out the way we want and we all can’t take the exact same path to our respective final destinations. For Jordan O’Brien, “Rome” was playing the beautiful game on the professional level.

Introduction

At the age of 3, after watching her dad and her brother play, she knew immediately that football was her sport. Her foundation is indoor; the small sided game, the quick touches, all the things that represent indoor soccer. Her first encounter was at Garden Grove Arena (CA) playing with boys and after she dove in, she never went back. “I always knew when I was younger. On all the things that ask you, ‘what do you wanna do when you get older?’ I always put ‘pro soccer player.” She tried other sports but they failed to keep her interest the way the most beloved sport on the planet had done. She graduated high school in 2010 and would earn a scholarship to play the sport she loves at Tulsa University.

Chapter 1: A Dash of Confidence

In 2015, she graduated college and went to the Houston Dash of the New Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). So you might think her story is done. She hit the straightaway to Rome and lucked out like some with a direct route. But that assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. She was happy to tell me about her first roadblock on her journey. “At that time with the Dash, there was no such thing as getting signed for the game and you get paid for that game. It was you got signed for the game and you’re still technically an amateur so we’re not going to pay you. It was rough because I had to drive an hour to and from every day. It was a financial burden for sure but, it was something I was so passionate about and really, really wanted. So I ended up leaving Houston after about 5 or 6 months. All around, it was a pretty rough time. I was starting to question whether or not I should play anymore. At one point I was literally looking for an excuse to not go to training. Everybody was so stoked for me being in Houston and being in the league but not realizing the struggle. It was only Houston’s second year and I didn’t feel like I was valued.”

Being the ultimate optimist, she credits her time in Houston as a learning experience and one that assisted in her growth.

Chapter 2: Un Pequeño Problema

A short time later, life took her across the pond to the Canary Islands. The next club on her adventure? UDG Tenerife in La Liga Femenina. Surely, the second time around things would be different. They had to be right?

Everything seemed promising in the beginning, then she found out she had to play out of position as a winger. She favors central midfield, eyeing that number 10 position but again, the ultimate optimist and team player, she was happy to play on the wing. But as time passed, things started to get rough for Jordan and mentally, it was getting difficult to keep it together.

She was far away from home, friends, everything she knew, and started to feel alone. To make matters worse, the league wasn’t professional. So all the while the representatives are telling her how “excited they are to sign you” and “they’re finishing the paperwork” but they ended up dropping a bomb of “Jordan we’re not going to be able to sign you.” After all that she was forced to leave Spain, but always the optimist, the silver lining was she was fresh because she played the entire preseason.

Chapter 3: It Goes Down, Down Under

After her first experiment across the pond, you might think she’s a glutton for punishment. As she returned to California to regroup, she was invited into preseason with Melbourne City in Australia. This was special because it was their debut season. It turns out the Melbourne Victory were approaching her too but she showed loyalty to City because they invited her first.

When she appeared for duty for hew new Australian club, they, of course, played her out of position at center back. “My defending is atrocious but I made it work,” she laughs. So she was around for about three weeks in a place that was even more expensive than Houston where she first struggled and still didn’t get signed. Luckily, the Victory extended an invitation to training, possibly for the last hurrah in Aussie Land, but it came with a caveat: you only have three days to impress and then they’ll decide who’s getting signed (because the club has a limit to how many internationals they can sign).

The amazing thing about Jordan is that her optimism never outweighs reality and she listens to her intuition. She knew the odds were stacked against her because she’s competing for a spot against women who had been training with the club for weeks while she had 72 hours to give her all. So here’s yet another seemingly perfect scenario. Everything’s going great, she’s getting positive feedback, and in the end, she didn’t get signed. So was it time to breakdown and mope after getting snubbed three times when her dream was so close she could taste it? No. It was time to high-tail it back to home base and come up with a new plan.

Jordan Blue Pro Kit

Chapter 4: The Great Up Norr (North)

While in California, O’Brien pivoted in a new direction. She rolled the dice and tried something new. It, along with what’s taken place in the last three chapters, was a learning experience. In her words:

“I went to a combine where pro coaches from around the world come and watch you play. I wasn’t 100% sold on the idea but what the hey, it never hurts to try. The combine in one sense got me to a team, but on the other hand, the way I was treated on this team was bad. Our team was bad, our coach was bad, and I got injured. A high ankle sprain. An injury I had never sustained and didn’t have a trainer to help me recover. The team tried to compensate me in other ways so they could pay me the minimum. So I’m in Sweden and end up getting a letter saying, ‘You need to leave immediately or you’re getting deported.’ Here we go again. How’s this happening again? I made it here through a combine, everything was supposed to be sorted out in a professional manner and it wasn’t. I really felt taken advantage of. It was pretty frustrating. So after 3 months, I had to leave.”

Back in the States, fate would lead her to Orlando, FL, where she would train with the Orlando Pride and have time to rehab her ankle. After signing with a new agent, she agreed to yet another stint overseas, this time in Iceland.

Iceland (like her other destinations) came with its own set of problems: A hiccup in her paperwork restricted her play to two months (it was supposed to be three), the team was in last place, their style of play didn’t truly accommodate her expertise, and she was forced out of position (again) at left wing. Adversity had become the norm for Jordan but her patience and optimism wouldn’t allow for any negativity. She was going to play professionally and that was that.

So not only did she play, but she played for two months, she linked up with two Brazilian teammates who complemented her style of play (which made her much more comfortable), and she played well enough to help her team out of the relegation zone to end up in sixth place by the time she left.

Chapter 5: The NWSL Round #2

After Iceland, O’Brien would return to Florida and sign with the Orlando Pride. As you should’ve picked up by now, nothing in her story has come easy. So naturally, she would end up playing out of position at left back (remember her quote on her defense). If that wasn’t challenging enough, she was at left back “behind the most talented left back I’ve ever seen, Steph Catley.” Stephanie Catley is a starter on Australia’s National Team.

After one season, Jordan decided to part ways with the Pride, but this time, on her own terms. “Why would I stay somewhere where the coaching staff didn’t believe in me?” Determined to ball professionally, her next adventure would finally bring about a wholly positive experience.

“After Orlando, I reached out to Utah Royals and was invited into their preseason for a month. Talk about a good example? Royals treat their players with the utmost respect. It’s insane how next level they are. All NWSL clubs should be held to the same level. It’s amazing how they treat their players. Everybody believes in what you’re doing. I thought Orlando was amazing… And then you go to Utah and they just blow everybody else out the water. I highly recommend that you or anyone else to visit. Their soccer community is fantastic. Unfortunately, their roster was full so I went back to California.”

Chapter 6: Take It To The Streets

In the midst of everything going on in her life, Jordan found a way to give back through her passion. A beautiful combination of football and faith led her on a mission trip to Rwanda with Ambassadors FC. “We go to various places and help girls develop their soccer skills and passion for the game,” she says. Growing the game for girls in different countries is important to her and the organization so it makes perfect sense that she’d be a part of it.

After a welcomed caesura from professional life, it was time for Jordan to get back on track. She wanted to play abroad but missed the first transfer window. After signing with a new agent, she was looking forward to playing in Norway but the plans fell through. So she missed the first part of the season and trained on her own. While in solitude, she came to the conclusion that she should go back to her passion and what makes her happy. And while footy brings the ultimate joy, it’s streetball that made her fall in love with the game.

More than anything, she loves playing pick-up games. Small sided games with people equally passionate about the game without politics is what she loves most. In LA, she played in Urban Futsal. She was a constant presence, so much so that she was getting invited to tournaments. That ultimately led to playing with a group of women in Neymar’s Jr. 5 tournament. After winning that tournament, she went to Miami where she would play in copious tournaments. That’s when she heard about Tango Squad FC.

“My path is not very direct. My path is ‘I have a stop here, here, here.’ Go with the flow. Que será será.” – Jordan O’Brien

Tango Squad FC, on paper, looked perfect for her and was right up her alley. While the optics were great, it turned out to be more complicated than she anticipated. “I called every Adidas contact I had (close to eight people) for three weeks straight before I could get registered and play in this tournament.” She soon found out that she was the lone female in the entire tournament, a possible reason to why so many “issues” appeared out the blue when attempting to register. Nonetheless, she made it into the tournament and her team won everything. They won every since match they played in and eventually made it to the final. They would lose on a questionable goal in overtime, but a blessing in disguise came afterward. “I had no idea that if we won we would’ve gone to Russia. I thought we were playing for fun!” she laughs. “But if you get MVP you can go. I had two votes along with a guy on the winning team but since his team won, he automatically won the MVP. As fate would have it, he didn’t have a passport so I go to go in his place to the World Cup and play in the Tango League Global Finals!” Who knew that a love of pick-up would eventually lead to the World Cup?

Tango platform

While in Russia, her agent called her and spoke of an opportunity to play for a Champions League team in Norway. There was nothing more she could ask for. She wanted to play overseas and return to the Women’s Champions League and here was the opportunity for both. So she left street soccer at a climactic point and returned to California to prepare for Europe.

Initially, things were good. She was back in Europe, qualified for Champions League, and she was there with her best friend Jamia Fields. But if you’ve noticed, the only happy ending in this overall story came with streetball. After arriving in Norway, the inevitable, looming disappointment wasn’t too far behind. “Having someone there with me was awesome but the experience wasn’t awesome,” she says. “But that’s ok, things don’t always work out the way we plan and it was a learning experience.”

Chapter 7: Learn From My Experiences

To say things didn’t go exactly as planned for Jordan would be an understatement. But with all her situations, in all the chapters of her story, the silver lining was learning. She never left an experience without learning something. With that being said, I left the penultimate part of our chat open to her. Prepare to take notes. She has good points to share with you all.

On going pro:

  1. If you can find a good agent, that would be essential. So be careful who you sign with (cuz there’s lots of bad agents out there). You don’t just wanna sign with anybody.
  2. Combines work but not all are created equal, just like agents (a lot of people are just thinking money).
  3. A lot of it will take research on your own. Figure out where you wanna go, what’s your style of play, etc. Make sure you’re going to a place you’ll enjoy.
  4. Have a good highlight reel is VERY important
  5. Creating a soccer résumé is also important
  6. You can reach out to clubs on your own. A lot of people fail to realize that. It’s not always going to work out but you can reach out to them on your own. It’s worth a shot. If you don’t wanna deal with an agent or a combine you can definitely reach out yourself. Ideally, you’re reaching out to the head coach.
  7. If you wanna be in the NWSL, go to an open tryout. Every club has an open tryout. They’ll also give you feedback so you know where you can improve.

On finding an agent:

Word of mouth and just ask. Find a player you like and you wanna be like them, just ask them. You can search online too, but Women’s Soccer isn’t such a big thing to where people will shun you if you ask who their agent is. They’ll open up to you.

On what she’d like to see happen with the NWSL:

Infrastructure. I wish there could be base criteria of what everybody should fit. Some clubs are doing it already but my best example is Utah. Utah does a very good job of setting the example of what this league needs to be. Every single player should feel extremely valued. The infrastructure that Utah has in place, the league should follow it. What it comes down to is the owner/investor. Whoever owns the team has to have that passion to be there in order to grow the women’s game, it can’t be a side thing. If you don’t have the time, effort, or passion in your investment, you’re wasting your time and everyone’s time that’s a part of that club.

Chapter 8: My Story’s Not Over

“Next month I’ll be in Madrid with Tango Squad FC. I would like to play in Spain. I’d like to be back abroad and push myself into a different place and space and grow as a person.”

Where will she end up next? France? Italy? Will she continue with streetball? You can follow her and the rest of her story on Instagram and Twitter.

Follow your dreams and stay on the path. What makes your path special is the fact that it’s yours.

“My path is not very direct. My path is ‘I have a stop here, here, here.’ Go with the flow. Que será será.”

 

-Jon J.

*Photos provided by Jordan O’Brien

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