Onyewu Stands Out in Belgium
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
LIEGE, Belgium -- Oguchi Onyewu is bouncing around Stade de Sclessin, trying to stay warm on a harsh March night in the Meuse Valley. Kickoff is moments away and the hotblooded crowd of 27,000 is in full verse, a throaty pregame tribute to Onyewu and his Standard Liege teammates.
Banners the size of highway billboards, distinguishing the most fanatical red-clad supporters, hang from the upper decks: Ultras Inferno. Hell Side. Guerilleros. Songs coming from the small, blue-splashed congregation supporting the opponent, Genk, are quickly swamped by the unreceptive hosts.
Amid the madness at the riverside pitch, dwarfed by the festival of color and ceremony, one can spot a few red, white and blue banners: American flags, lying atop a small roof near the field, stuck to a facade, draped over a fan's shoulders.
"It's a nice feeling to know they appreciate you, and appreciate where you're from," Onyewu, 23, said after the 1-0 victory.
Onyewu, the son of Nigerian immigrants, was born in Washington, raised in Silver Spring and Olney with his four siblings and came through Montgomery County's youth leagues. He played two seasons at Sherwood High School, enrolled in the U.S. under-17 residency program in Florida, returned home to graduate from Sherwood, then played two years at Clemson University before embarking on his European adventure.
In his second season with Standard Liege, Onyewu (pronounced Own-YAY-woo) has developed into one of the most fearsome defenders in the modest Belgian league.
This summer, his life -- and bank account -- could undergo a dramatic transformation. Onyewu probably will start for the United States at the World Cup in Germany and, if he performs well and reinforces the favorable reviews he has already received throughout Europe, he could become the subject of a multimillion-dollar transfer to a prominent club in England. Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Charlton reportedly are among the suitors.
"I am very afraid we will lose him," said Standard General Manager Pierre Francois, who, by the terms of Onyewu's contract, must approve a sale if an offer reaches an undisclosed threshold and the player wants to go.
"After the World Cup, who knows? The big clubs in Europe like him very much."
What they, as well as U.S. Coach Bruce Arena, like most about Onyewu is his physical presence on the back line. By soccer standards, Onyewu is massive -- 6 feet 4, 210 pounds, shoulders as broad as an SUV and only a teaspoon of body fat.
"Physically we don't have to worry about him," Arena said. "God took care of that area."
Onyewu didn't make his national team debut until October 2004 at RFK Stadium and has appeared in only 12 matches overall -- an alarmingly brief tenure for a player in contention for a World Cup role. But steady adaptations to the international game and those unmistakable physical attributes have earned him a vital role in Arena's defensive corps.