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Oguchi Onyewu returns for U.S. soccer, but timing is a touch off vs. Czech Republic

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010;

EAST HARTFORD, CONN. -- Even from the upper deck of near-capacity Rentschler Field, the physical gifts of Oguchi Onyewu were easy to spot.

At 6 feet 4, 210 pounds, Onyewu assumed his spot along the U.S. back line for Tuesday's World Cup warmup against the Czech Republic like a towering sentry -- and a sorely missed one, at that, having been sidelined these last seven months by major surgery on his left knee.

But in a sport that unfolds as quickly as soccer, especially when played at world-class level, no edge in height can compensate for timing that's a split-second off.

That's what tripped up Onyewu in his long-awaited return to competitive play Tuesday, as the American's top defender was beat on a header by a player four inches shorter.

The goal, scored by Tomas Sivok of the Czech Republic in the 44th minutes, hardly determined the outcome: A 4-2 loss that sapped a good bit of the patriotic passion out of the spirited crowd of 36,218.

But it highlighted a disconcerting vulnerability in the Americans' defense that must be shored up before the U.S. opens World Cup play June 12 against England.

It also highlighted the work that Onyewu, in particular, still must do to recapture the form that earned him the confidence of his U.S. coaches and teammates over the last four years.

Coach Bob Bradley accentuated the positive when asked afterward about Onyewu's return to the field, as if to send a message that there was no cause for concern, while acknowledging that his defensive anchor wasn't yet a finished product.

"We've seen improvement in this camp in terms of just how he moves around, so that was encouraging," Bradley said. "His overall reactions to the game were good. His on-the-ball passing, that kind of thing, pretty solid. Now it's just all those things being moved up a few more notches -- the ability to size things up [and] get good position on players."

Bradley said he spoke to Onyewu and fellow defender Clarence Goodson about the issue of timing during the break.

"It's not just pure height in terms of winning those headers," Bradley recounted later. "It's that ability to put yourself in the right spot. It's that ability to put yourself in the right spot a little bit before the opponent. Those are things you only get from playing in matches."

Onyewu, 28, who is from Olney, ruptured his patella tendon during the U.S. squad's final World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium in October. After undergoing surgery, he had spent the last seven months rehabilitating the knee, with the help and support of his club team, AC Milan.

He joined the U.S. squad for its week-long training camp in Princeton, N.J., last week. Reporters were allowed to watch only the final 15 minutes of practice each day, and it was difficult to gauge Onyewu's readiness from the sprinting and jogging he did in those his limited sessions.

But he insisted that all aspects of his game were in top shape, including jumping and heading, and he vowed to prove that he was, in fact, a stronger player than he had ever been.

But with the U.S. leading 1-0 as the first half ticked away, the Czech side got a free kick and sent the ball squarely toward the area of the field Onyewu patrolled, just in front of the goal.

Sivok, the Czech forward, won the battle in the air and headed the ball into the net, past goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

Onyewu said there was nothing to regret or replay in his mind.

"He jumped up on me while I was in the air. I'm trying to jump up; he had his forearm keeping me down," Onyewu said. "Unless I was to jump earlier than he does, I don't think there's anything else I could have done. He just used his weight against me and jumped earlier."

The U.S. squad will play its final send-off match Saturday against Turkey in Philadelphia and board a plane to South Africa the next day.

They'll play a final tuneup June 5 in Roodeport, South Africa, against Australia.

Drawn in Group C, the U.S. opens play against England June 12, the second day of the month-long tournament, in Rustenburg. That's followed by a June 18 match against Slovenia and a June 23 meeting with Algeria in Pretoria.

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