Maryland Native Oguchi Onyewu Returns Home to Represent AC Milan

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009

Oguchi Onyewu began playing soccer with his boyhood buddies at St. Andrew Apostle Catholic School in Silver Spring. Weekends were consumed by MSI, the iconic youth program of Montgomery County, and the group remained largely unbroken through eighth grade.

As his physique and ability grew to abnormal levels, Onyewu was soon touring with an elite travel squad and representing Olney's Sherwood High School. He would come back to Maryland for college matches with Clemson and for an Olympic qualifying game with the U.S. under-23 squad.

Now 27, a chiseled, 6-foot-4 defender who has started in a World Cup for the United States national team, spent seven years playing in Europe, learned French and earned a living matched by only a handful of American soccer players, Onyewu has returned to his home state for a game Friday night.

As he did with his St. Andrew crew, he is representing a club that wears red and black. Only this team is the most famous to ever don those colors: AC Milan.

The stage is not a county park, but M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The audience is not just friends and family, but about 71,000 spectators for Milan's preseason friendly against English titan Chelsea as part of the World Football Challenge. Teammates aren't neighborhood friends but the world's elite, such as Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho.

"I got a little bit emotional" when he agreed to the deal with Milan, he said at a news conference this week in Atlanta before making his debut Wednesday in the second half of a 2-1 loss to Mexico City's Club America at Georgia Dome. "It does not happen every day to play for such a prestigious club."

Dozens of Americans have ventured to Europe, soccer's promised land. Most are sprinkled throughout England, Germany and Scandinavia. Onyewu is the only one in Italy's Serie A, which is rivaled by Spain's La Liga and England's Premier League as the finest soccer circuit in the world.

The last U.S. national team player to represent a Serie A club was defender Alexi Lalas in the mid-1990s.

"He was always the best player on our team and one of the fastest players. He was big but wasn't that much bigger than the rest of us like he is now," said Mike Limarzi, one of Onyewu's former St. Andrew teammates and the brother of D.C. United's radio announcer, Tony Limarzi. "To see how far he has gone in soccer is incredible. It's a big-time move for American soccer."

Onyewu's career trajectory was not as defined as most of Milan's players. After leaving Clemson University two years early, he bounced between secondary clubs in France and Belgium before finding a home at Standard Liege in Belgium. Onyewu spent five seasons there, emerging as one of the best central defenders in the modest league and helping the club win championships the past two years.

However, he clung to the dream of European fame and fortune. A loan to English club Newcastle in 2007 didn't go well. But this past season, Onyewu began attracting interest again because, with his contract set to expire, a suitor wouldn't have to pay a transfer fee for his rights. He passed up a lucrative offer from German club Moenchengladbach -- a gamble of sorts, for if he did not play well for the U.S. national team at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, his stock on the European market would surely fall.

Onyewu, though, was instrumental in the Americans' run to the championship game, which included an upset of top-ranked Spain in the semifinals, and the Milan offer soon arrived.

His salary with Liege was an estimated $750,000. Terms of his new three-year deal were not disclosed, but two seasons ago, contracts for Milan players ranged from $1.4 million to $8.4 million.

"It's one of the great clubs in the world and it's a terrific opportunity for him," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said of Milan, which is owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and has won 17 league championships (second to Juventus) and seven European crowns (second to Real Madrid). "Certainly the experience that he'll get there will really be important as we move forward with our national team."

Onyewu was tentative at times in his debut, and he was largely responsible for Club America's first goal as a high cross sailed over his head and landed at Enrique Esqueda's foot for a volleyed strike. But he also showed good footwork during one midfield sequence, and in the closing minutes while pushed forward in the attack, he directed a header to Gianmarco Zigoni, who missed a clear opportunity to tie the match.

"We need strength and power," said Leonardo, Milan's Brazilian-born coach. "He is a symbol of that."

Following Friday's appearance in Baltimore and Sunday's game against arch nemesis Inter Milan in Foxborough, Mass., Onyewu and AC Milan will move on to the final stage of Serie A preparations -- and the next phase of an American's soccer odyssey.

"To be a part of AC Milan is something I've been working toward ever since I first started playing soccer," Onyewu said. "It paid off."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company