EAST HARTFORD, Conn. John O'Brien spent most of the last three years as the invisible man of the U.S. soccer team.
After starring at the 2002 World Cup, he kept getting hurt, playing just one game with the U.S. national team and just a few with his club, Dutch power Ajax Amsterdam.
''I kept springing a leak,'' he said.
His hamstrings and Achilles' tendons are healed, and he's set to join U.S. captain Claudio Reyna in the midfield when the United States plays Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday night.
Reyna also has recuperated from leg injuries and will be playing just his second international game since September. He will be paired with O'Brien for the first time since the quarterfinal loss to Germany at the 2002 World Cup.
''Having Claudio and John makes it easy on me because they do all the work,'' forward Landon Donovan said after Tuesday's practice at Rentschler Field. ''I don't have to worry about getting the ball and moving it from side to side or finding people. They do that. I just get in front of the goal and try to score, so it's going to be fun for me.''
The United States (4-1) is second in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region with 12 points, one behind Mexico (4-0-1), and can move to the verge of qualifying for its fifth straight World Cup.
Costa Rica (2-2-1), which plays at Mexico, is third with seven points, followed by Guatemala and T&T (1-3-1) with four each and Panama (0-3-2) with two. The top three teams qualify, and the No. 4 nation goes to a playoff against Bahrain, Kuwait or Uzbekistan for another berth.
With a win, the United States would clinch no worse than fourth place and almost certainly need no more than three points from its final four games to qualify.
O'Brien, who turns 28 later this month, scored the Americans' first goal of the 2002 World Cup, knocking in the rebound after Brian McBride's header was saved in the fourth minute of a 3-2 win over Portugal.
He signed with Ajax in 1998 but left in February to join ADO Den Haag, a much smaller club. The curly haired Californian from Playa del Rey went to Carson, Calif., and worked with Athletes Performance to try to heal.
''I really tried to do things differently,'' he said. ''I was really trying to work on solving some of my issues in terms of my hamstrings bothering me all the time, trying to learn how to move a little bit differently and be a little more efficient when I'm running around.''
In last month's CONCACAF Gold Cup, he came in as a second-half substitute in the opener against Cuba, just his second appearance with the national team since 2002. He started the next five games, scoring the tying goal in the 86th minute of the semifinal victory over Honduras.
''End of May, I didn't think he'd be where he was,'' U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.
He thinks O'Brien and Reyna lend a calming influence to other players on the field. At key moments, the Americans have scrambled instead of trying to settle themselves, especially when veteran players were absent during the Gold Cup.
''Even our dumbest players, if every time we get the ball and they take off a run and it turns over, they'll eventually say, 'I'm not going to run anymore,'" Arena said. ''The movement off the ball is much better when you have players like Claudio and John in the midfield.
''Some players you don't want to play those tight little balls to in big games because they don't think they can deal with it. But those guys are pretty good at holding the ball under pressure.''
The Americans, playing their 100th World Cup qualifier, are 11-1-3 against the Soca Warriors, including 7-0-2 at home. They are 16-0-8 against Caribbean opponents since a loss at Trinidad in November 1994 and are unbeaten in 30 straight home games against regional rivals since a September 2001 defeat to Honduras in a qualifier.
At least O'Brien knows there will be a game Wednesday. ADO Den Haag's league opener last weekend against Ajax was postponed by Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen until January.
''There's a bunch of festivals going in Amsterdam right now, and there weren't enough cops to ensure the safety of the fans,'' O'Brien said.
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