U.S. Players Look to Make Their Mark in Gold Cup Play

By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009; 12:44 AM

For the U.S. men's national team players who take part in the CONCACAF Gold Cup -- which continues tonight at RFK Stadium against Honduras -- the call-up represents an invaluable opportunity to make an impression one year before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The squad is almost entirely made up of players with little to no experience at the international level -- a contrast to the team which made its surprising run to the final of last month's FIFA Confederations Cup. Sixteen players on the original 23-man roster entered the Gold Cup with fewer than five appearances with the national team, and seven were looking to make their international debut. But history shows the tournament has provided a springboard for players to go from fringe options to World Cup participants.

The value of a strong performance at the Gold Cup was impossible not to acknowledge yesterday morning after it was announced that D.C. native Oguchi Onyewu signed a three-year contract with Italian Serie A powerhouse A.C. Milan, one of the world's most prestigious clubs. Onyewu and Clint Dempsey, now national team stalwarts, parlayed strong performances in the 2005 Gold Cup into bigger roles at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, as did defender Jimmy Conrad, whose efforts in 2005 earned him a roster spot on the World Cup team and eventual appearances against Italy and Ghana.

And though the United States proved last month it has developed a core group of players able to compete with the world's top teams, Coach Bob Bradley said the process of finding players who are able to contribute and provide depth is ongoing. Those players, Bradley said, certainly could be discovered this month based at least partly on how they perform in this tournament.

"I think that's always the way you want things to happen," Bradley said. "You give guys an opportunity, you then assess how they do here, and then you continue to observe them with their club teams and make the tough decisions going forward."

Several players with local ties are among those hoping to catch Bradley's eye, including midfielders Robbie Rogers (University of Maryland) and Kyle Beckerman (Crofton), defender Clarence Goodson (W.T. Woodson High/Maryland), D.C. United midfielder Santino Quaranta and former D.C. United forward Freddy Adu (Potomac), who was on the roster at the Confederations Cup but did not play.

For those hoping to make an impression, however, there must be a delicate balance between trying to stand out and doing so within the confines of the team.

"I think that's where I've grown as a player," said Quaranta, whose return to the national team represents another major step in his comeback from a struggle with addiction. "I figured out that if you put the team first and you work hard for your team, that the other things kind of fall into play. The chips are going to fall where they may and you can't be selfish about this thing. You control what you can control and that's yourself. For me, I'm just going to work hard and see where it takes me and it's been good so far."

And for those on the Gold Cup roster hoping to seize a bigger role within the national pool, Onyewu's signing provided yet another example of just how important this tournament might prove to be.

"Different players have had chances in the Gold Cup and then go on to have great success," said Rogers, who scored and had two assists against Grenada in the tournament opener. "As a player, I see it and it gives me confidence. . . . I would love a chance just to contribute in any way. But I think this is definitely a chance for me to prove to Bob or to whoever else that I can help the team."

The son of Nigerian immigrants, Onyewu was born in Washington, reared 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 before leaving for Europe.

"It's very exciting," Bradley said of the signing. "It's one of the great clubs in the world and I think it's a terrific opportunity for him and certainly the experience that he'll get there I think will really be important as we move forward with our national team."

Most recently, the 27-year-old Onyewu helped Standard Liege win consecutive Belgian league titles.

He becomes one of a handful of American internationals to join the Serie A.

Alexi Lalas played for Padova from 1994 to '96 and New Jersey native Giuseppe Rossi, the son of Italian parents, played for Parma and joined the Italian national team. He now plays for Villareal in Spain.

"I'm really happy for him and I think it opens a lot of doors for Americans," U.S. forward Charlie Davies said. "And he was able to break that barrier for Americans to be able to play at a big time club. I think a lot of guys coming up, younger guys, can have a dream that they can play for a team like Real Madrid or Barcelona because Gooch was able to break that barrier."

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