American defender Oguchi Onyewu is always up for a fight. That much has been clear since he muscled his way into our collective conscious prior to the 2006 World Cup. Whether it was the entire Mexican forward line, or a century old plague of racism in European football, Onyewu has been willing and ready to go to battle time and again. But all those wars waged may have been merely prelude to the defender’s next great bout.
The clock is ticking on Gooch’s career with the U.S. Men’s National Team. He’s now fully recovered from the patellar tendon injury he suffered a year ago, but will be solidly on the wrong side of 30 when the 2014 World Cup comes around– 32 to be exact. After a couple lackluster performances in South Africa, during which we were treated to a not-yet-healthy Onyewu playing less physically and making uncharacteristic errors, the American mainstay will be determined to give it another go on the world’s biggest stage. Will he get the opportunity? Let’s look at the tale of the tape.
Oguchi “Gooch” Onyewu vs. Time – Heavyweights
Weight: 210 lbs
Hometown: Silver Spring, Maryland
In His Corner: Gooch has the best training staff in world for what he’s trying to do. No one has a better track record of extending careers and keeping their players competitive, if not elite, than A.C. Milan. In fact, it’s no longer even accurate to refer to Milan’s physios simply as a training staff. They went all scientific on us, it’s actually The Milan Lab. The name might be a little pompous, but they can be as pompous as they want given their success. From Filippo Inzaghi (37) to Nesta and Oddo (both 34) to Paolo Maldini who retired at age 60 (actually 40), the club’s track record of prolonging careers and keeping the players competitive at advanced footballing ages is more than impressive. Simply stated, Gooch’s club team will provide him with the best training and health services in the world of soccer for as long as he plays for the Italian giants. A.C. is like a motor oil for high mileage cars or that weird smelling chow you’re supposed to feed your dog after a certain age. Maybe that’s why the American is ready to play the final year of his contract for free in 2013.
Onyewu also has a great cheerleader in his corner. USMNT manager Bob Bradley, like many coaches, values players that he knows and trusts above almost anything. Go ahead and insert your own Jonathan Bornstein joke right here. So in spite of the defender’s age and the wear and tear that comes with it, Bobbo will be rooting for his monster in the middle to stay fit, play well, and earn the right to keep his spot in the side. The position that Gooch plays will also benefit him in Bradley’s eyes. For all we hear about hot shot attacking players, you hardly ever hear about young and dominant center backs (though Onyewu was once touted as one). The rumor and various talking heads will suggest to you that this is the best crop of young American defenders yet– but beyond an Omar Gonzalez cameo against Brazil and a shining performance form sideback Eric Lichaj (pronounced Lehigh, if you wondered), there is little evidence the cubbard is ready to be full. Onyewu’s positional awareness, and the ability to read the opposing attack will be of paramount importance as he gets older, as they are to every CB tegardless of age, and history is not on his side.
Hometown: Parts Unknown
In His Corner: For as fortunate as Onyewu is to have A.C. Milan’s training staff on his side, he’s equally unfortunate to be crushed under the heel of the club’s coaching staff. Gooch may have just had a couple good games for the U.S., signaling to all that he’s back healthy and ready to play, but Massimiliano Allegri and his coaches either weren’t watching or just don’t care. Onyewu doesn’t even make the bench for Milan, let alone the pitch. But maybe I’m vilifying Allegri unfairly. Maybe the American defender doesn’t bring it in practice and is content to be outplayed everyday by Alessandro Nesta, Thiago Silva, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and the ghost of Paolo Maldini’s playing career. I suppose it’s possible, but that doesn’t sound like the fiercely competitive center back we’ve all come to know over the last five years or so. Rather than conjecture further as to why Gooch isn’t on the field, suffice to say that he has to play for his club in order to keep playing for the national team for years to come.
The other main factor siding solidly with Time is Onyewu’s playing style. While he does possess some of those nice traits of successful geriatric defenders that I listed earlier, Gooch’s biggest strength has always been his overly physical style of play. He’s bigger than you, he’s stronger than you, and he’s going to muscle you off the ball/back you down/win the header (take your pick). We saw an Onyewu that couldn’t dominate his opponents physically at this past World Cup, and that’s an Onyewu that has no place in the national team moving forward.
Prediction: Nothing I’ve written here will surprise the 58-times-capped American, and his self awareness will play a huge part in his fight to stave off international irrelevance. He knows he’s got to continue to be a lean (giant), mean, fighting machine, and barring another severe injury, he should be able to do it. Onyewu fans will just hope that Gooch finds his way into the A.C. side before he becomes surplus to requirements and is transferred out, thereby losing the fountain-of-youth-level perks provided by The Milan Lab.
Jon Levy is Co-Founder, Senior Writer and Associate Editor for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.