Oguchi Onyewu proves he's fit to compete for U.S. at World Cup

Oguchi Onyewu acknowledges fans after the United States managed a 1-1 tie against England.
Oguchi Onyewu acknowledges fans after the United States managed a 1-1 tie against England. (Jewel Samad/agence France-presse/getty Images)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

IRENE, SOUTH AFRICA -- Oguchi Onyewu kept his word: He was, indeed, ready for the World Cup.

"It's funny when everyone is like, 'Oh, he says he will be ready but that is just his competitive spirit talking,' " the U.S. national team defender said Wednesday. "To finally, in a sense, silence the naysayers, it feels good to get them off my back, at least for one game."

Before anchoring the back line in the 1-1 draw with England last Saturday, Onyewu had not played a 90-minute match in eight months -- neither for the United States nor for his Italian club, AC Milan.

Observers attending World Cup training camp at Princeton last month thought they noticed a hitch in his stride, consequence of a ruptured patella tendon suffered in October at RFK Stadium in the final qualifier. Fans wondered how he could possibly compete at the ultimate level without meaningful competition. In the three tuneups before the tournament, he started just once and never played more than 65 minutes.

But questions about his physical fitness and game preparedness were put to rest on a cool evening in North West province. He won aerial battles, threw his 6-foot-4 frame in front of shots, and in a stressful second half when England poured forward with piercing forays, Onyewu's wise decisions and timely tackles helped preserve the tie.

"I have known Gooch a long time, and one thing that he does maybe better than anyone is he is ready in big moments," said midfielder Landon Donovan, Onyewu's teammate at various stages of the U.S. system for 11 years.

"He knows that he can be a top player when he needs to be. If you looked at it from afar about a week ago, you would almost predict he was going to play well because he has always done that."

Onyewu, who was born in Washington and played at Sherwood High School in Olney, will return to the lineup Friday against Slovenia in a Group C match that very well could make or break the Americans.

While a victory would lift them to the brink of a berth in the round of 16, a loss would severely damage their hopes. A draw would muddle the situation heading into next Wednesday's finale against Algeria in Pretoria.

The defensive performance in the opener was encouraging, more so from an individual standpoint than a collective effort. The Americans were burned in the fourth minute and conceded a dangerous amount of space and possession in the second half, but through the courageous play of Onyewu, central partner Jay DeMerit and right back Steve Cherundolo, they secured a point.

Onyewu, in his second World Cup, canceled out several threats by Wayne Rooney, England's predatory striker, and in the process, looked like his old self.

"It's been a long eight months," he said, referring to the gap between 90-minute performances. His previous full game came in the 3-2 victory at Honduras that clinched a World Cup berth. Four days later against Costa Rica, he suffered the knee injury. The rehabilitation process sidelined him until the final few weeks of AC Milan's season. He resumed full-time training and traveled with the club but did not enter a league match.

In the friendlies ahead of the World Cup, rustiness showed.

"It's muscle memory," defender Jonathan Spector said. "There are movements and things you do consistently and, after being out for a number of months, you lose that. But fortunately, it comes back quickly. It's a gradual change, but you could see him getting there."

Onyewu, 28, said he never doubted himself and brushed off suggestions that he wouldn't recover in time for the World Cup.

"Everyone was doubting my fitness in terms of missing a whole [Italian] season and whether I would be able to go 90 minutes," he said. "Once you get on the field, you put all of that [skepticism] behind you."

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