O'Brien turned 33 in June and has enjoyed a rich career, including nine full seasons in the English Premier League plus spot appearances in three more, and four and a half good years (including 2010-11) in the Championship/First Division. Though born in England he's a former Irish international, although that part of his career is long over, renowned for aerial ability and poise on the ball that, even at his age, is certainly at an MLS level. There are questions about his pace, which could prove a problem in a league where so many forwards thrive off athleticism. He also isn't an on-field discipline case; hard-nosed enough to hold his own in England but with sufficient self-control to avoid yellow card problems and hopefully survive MLS's capricious refereeing.
He is not a designated player; however, as an import fresh out of Championship soccer we can assume that O'Brien's contract is lucrative until informed otherwise.
There are two questions which jump out at me surrounding O'Brien. First, he is 33 years old. Jay DeMerit is 32; unless Martin Rennie does the unthinkable and prefers Martin Bonjour to DeMerit then the Whitecaps will run out one of the oldest centre back pairings in the league. Add in Young-Pyo Lee at right back and suddenly 29-year-old Alain Rochat is the young gun on a defense almost entirely past its prime.
Second, O'Brien left Leeds under difficult circumstances. In November he told then-Leeds boss Andy Grayson he would never play for the club again, refusing to come into a game, which naturally drove Grayson bananas. However, it came out that O'Brien was suffering from clinical depression: he entered treatment and returned to training with Leeds in late January. After Grayson was sacked O'Brien returned to the lineup as a substitute under caretaker manager Neil Redfearn on February 12. That match was Redfearn's second-last in charge before Neil Warnock took over; Warnock saw no place for O'Brien in his club, giving him no chance in the first team and transfer-listing the veteran at the end of the season.
Let's hope O'Brien has his personal issues under control. It's impossible for us, as outside observers, to judge such a thing. I don't mind confessing I'm always apprehensive about taking risks on players who have recently had such battles with their demons, but he seems to be leaving Leeds on good terms after the earlier unpleasantness and has a long career of loyal service behind him. Those are both very promising signs, and O'Brien's mental health is more important than any of his soccer credentials.
Those credentials are reasonably strong. Until his depression O'Brien was a regular on a Leeds United defense that was below average but not dreadful. That said, the defense was weak all year, and late in the season Warnock didn't see O'Brien as a way to strengthen it. He's also been nine months without much meaningful soccer and, even when he was considered a worthy starter in his thirties, was more a useful, if plodding journeyman than a real standout player. Think a Championship Martin Bonjour and you'll be near-ish the mark.
In my books, we don't need another Martin Bonjour; we already have a pretty good one. Those same books say that Bonjour is outplaying Jay DeMerit this season, so if one of them should hit the bench it should be Jay. But neither has been problematic; it certainly isn't worth spending big money to upgrade the position mid-season, not unless it was a real world-class stud.
It's just possible that O'Brien has signed a value contract in Vancouver looking for some redemption. After his troubled season in Leeds his value is presumably down, and if he's signed cheaply with the Whitecaps he might be a good use of resources as depth. That said, it's hard on Carlyle Mitchell, who was excoriated for a poor game against the New England Revolution but has looked good in the Reserves games I've seen and was of course reasonably promising in the 2011 season. If O'Brien is to be a core part of the team going forward then Mitchell should probably rent rather than buy, if you take my meaning; a pity, as Mitchell's youth, promise, and versatility seemed to be worth nurturing. Rennie disagreed, preferring to move Rochat to centre back and put Jordan Harvey on the left; if O'Brien spells the end to that at least it's something.
The Whitecaps defense did not seem like it needed a larger investment at this stage of the season. With Rochat, Bonjour, DeMerit, Lee, and now probably O'Brien all experienced players making six figures and the team conceding a reasonable 1.22 goals per match (tied for fourth in the West), I would have preferred a winger or a defensive midfielder to a questionable centre back charging hard towards his mid-thirties. But that's my philopophy.
Martin Rennie's certainly assembled a veteran bunch and is avoiding playing youngsters that aren't Gershon Koffie. He's loading up to win now; we'll see if this bears fruit.