Major League Soccer’s secondary transfer window didn’t open until Tuesday, but, as several other franchises, Orlando City SC had already made its first move way before that as the Lions announced the signing of center back Shane O’Neill a couple of weeks ago.
Central defense shouldn’t be a spot of clear need within Orlando’s roster as the club already had Jonathan Spector, Lamine Sané, Amro Tarek, and Chris Schuler for the position, but a series of injuries and international call-ups left the team short-handed and forced midfielder Tony Rocha and fullback RJ Allen to see time as center backs some weeks ago, so the Lions decided to add an extra body there.
A 24-year-old player standing at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, O’Neill started his career in MLS with the Colorado Rapids, where he played between 2012 and 2015. After that, the Irish-born U.S. citizen spent time in Cyprus, Belgium, England’s fourth division, and the Netherlands before returning to the country to play for the Lions.
“He is an athletic defender who is competitive and hungry to succeed,” Orlando City General Manager Niki Budalic said when the signing was announced. “Shane’s experience in MLS and Europe in addition to various U.S. national teams will be valuable as we head into the second half of the season.”
O’Neill’s career has not been impressive so far, but there are positives and negatives to be taken from his background and these elements are helpful to figure out what his role with the team could be.
For starters, at the age of 24 O’Neill is expected to have his best years yet to come, especially as a center back. The fact that he made 15 appearances with U.S. youth national teams from 2013 to 2015 — having played in the 2013 U-20 FIFA World Cup — and was called into the U.S. senior national team camp in January 2015 means that he showed some promising signs in the early years of his career.
During his MLS time, O’Neill played 53 matches for the Rapids and averaged 1.8 tackles, 2.1 interceptions, 4.4 clearances and 0.3 blocks per game according to WhoScored.com. As a reference, granted that the league has changed since 2015, these numbers are decent and would rank him third in tackles and interceptions, first in clearances and fourth in blocks among Orlando City’s center backs in the current season.
One element that raises the first question mark about O’Neill is the struggle he had to find playing time overseas. He never lined up for two of the five teams he signed for and played just one match with S.B.V. Excelsior in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2017-2018 and two with English fourth-division side Cambridge United in 2016.
His last solid season was 2016-2017, when the was on the field for 25 matches with NAC Breda in the Dutch second division, meaning that he played in just 28 matches in the last three seasons. His last official match was in February, but he was subbed in for a single minute when playing for S.B.V. Excelsior. His last full match was played in May of 2017.
With Spector and Sané presumed to be the starters and Tarek making a solid case to be the first backup behind them, O’Neill is expected to have a limited role with Orlando City. He was certainly a low-cost signing and could be used to fill in when needed, but shouldn’t provide a significant impact on the team’s back line. Considering his age and background, he can still be developed into a more productive player if the Lions have the patience to work with him.