Michael O'Neill, Northern Ireland

In 2001, the city of Portland was ready to jump back into the world of professional soccer as the Timbers joined the A-League, the second tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid just below MLS. Current Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson, then a defender for the New Zealand National Team who had been playing in Ireland, was signed in early April of that year. Another member of that inaugural A-League side played just one season, but made a lasting impact. Midfielder Michael O’Neill, a former Northern Ireland international, joined the squad in early May from St. Johnstone of the Scottish Premier League.

O’Neill, who is now the head coach of the Northern Ireland National Team as the squad faces 2014 World Cup qualifying this Fall, made his home debut against the Seattle Sounders on May 11 and finished the year ranked fourth on the team with 16 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in 22 matches.

The former Shamrock Rovers two-time League of Ireland manager of the year took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

How did you find your way to the Rose City in 2001?
O’Neill: “I had an opportunity before Portland to go to America, but I got injured. Later, the opportunity came up through an agent I knew to go to Portland. After going through a few injuries I thought this was a good opportunity, a new challenge and it basically came up at the right time and I thought it was the right thing to do.

What is your best memory of that 2001 season?
O’Neill: “I have a lot of great memories with Portland, particularly my opening game was fantastic in front of 13,500 fans against Seattle. Portland had been out of the top level for a number of years, so it was a great occasion for the club. I enjoyed all the games particularly at PGE Park (now JELD-WEN Field). It was our first year back and it was a relatively successful year for the team.

What was your impression of the city?
O’Neill: “I loved Portland to be honest, I thought it was a lovely place to live. Myself and my wife didn’t have kids at the time, but felt it would be a great place to raise a family as it was very much an outdoors type of lifestyle and a very good quality of life.”

What do you think of MLS in its current state?
O’Neill: “I am a big fan of MLS and the standard is increasing year on year with more teams competing and developing. I believe it is definitely going to become a very competitive league and will continue to attract more and more players from outside leagues and maybe more of the experienced, superstars but, also I think over time you will start to see players going over to MLS at a younger age.”

You left after the 2001 season, but do you still keep track of the Timbers while continuing your coaching career with Northern Ireland?
O’Neill: “Yeah I do and I keep in touch with Gavin Wilkinson who is the general manager now and I know John Spencer, the coach, as well. I kept a close eye on how they did last season which was their first season in MLS. I am sure they will be looking to build on what they achieved last season.”

What are your thoughts on the Timbers/Sounders rivalry?
O’Neill: “The rivalry between the Timbers and the Seattle Sounders was very intense, the game always had an edge to it and I was sent off in one of the games. But it was very enjoyable and it is nice to see that kind of rivalry in America because America is such a vast country and it is not something that is typical of soccer and sport in America in the same way as it would be in the United Kingdom, but certainly the rivalry between both teams is one of the big ones in US Soccer.”

As the head coach of the Northern Ireland National Team, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing your side ahead of World Cup qualification in September?
O’Neill: “Everyone knows the difficulty of the group we are in and the quality of the opposition such as Portugal, Russia and, particularly, Israel — which I believe will be a difficult game as well. Luxembourg and Azerbaijan will both be very organized and difficult teams to play against. However, we look to be competitive, to progress to develop and add to the group of players and hopefully we can get off to a good start. We have a difficult opening away game against Russia, but if we can get a few points on the board in the early games we will have four games at home and from there hopefully we can make an impact on the group.”

The Northern Ireland National Team, under the guidance of Michael O’Neill, begins its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign on the road against Russia on Sept. 7, 2012.