Oguchi Onyewu determined to regain top form or more for U.S. men's soccer team

Oguchi Onyewu is likely to play Tuesday against the Czech Republic, his first match since his injury.
Oguchi Onyewu is likely to play Tuesday against the Czech Republic, his first match since his injury. (Mel Evans/associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Seven months ago Friday, Oguchi Onyewu underwent surgery for a ruptured patella tendon, an injury as gruesome and serious as it sounds. His left kneecap was thrust into his quadriceps muscle and doctors needed to drill holes into the bone to reconnect it to the tendon with fibers.

Onyewu, the 6-foot-4, muscle-packed central defender for the U.S. national team, realized from the moment the injury occurred, in the final moments of the team's last World Cup qualifier in October against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium, that he would not get back onto the field anytime soon.

After months of rehabilitation and questions about whether he would return in time for the World Cup, Onyewu is now participating in full workouts at training camp at Princeton University. In a friendly on Tuesday in East Hartford, Conn., against the Czech Republic, he is likely to appear in a competitive match for the first time since suffering the injury.

"It's been a long time since I have been in a game situation," he said after workouts Thursday. "I'm sure there are going to be some nerves for me the first minute or two. After that, you are going to see the same Gooch you saw seven months ago."

Actually, Onyewu said he is a better player than he was before the setback.

"I want to show to everybody, because I am sure you read blogs and you read magazine or newspaper articles and a lot of people are saying I won't come back like I was," he said. "I am going to go out there and agree with them: I won't come back like I was. I am going to come back stronger. I don't think right now I am the same player I was seven months ago, regardless of what anyone thinks, and I am going to use this year 2010 to prove that. . . .

"Mentally I am a stronger player. It's not easy at all to come through it. It's painful, day in and day out. I have had time to work a lot on elements of my game that perhaps weren't up to par."

In recent weeks, Onyewu, who is from Olney, made steady progress with his Italian club, AC Milan, and was considered for action in the final two Serie A matches.

Although he didn't play, it was a clear indication that he was close to full strength.

Observers at training Thursday noticed a slight hitch in his stride.

But Onyewu said: "I don't think there is any element of the game that I haven't taken part in -- the sprinting, the cutting, the fitness, the jumping, the heading. It is where it should be, where it needs to be to compete at the highest level. I am ready to go at it and to put to rest all of these concerns."

The biggest question facing Onyewu is game fitness. Training camp is not the same as the upcoming friendlies, and the friendlies pale in comparison to the intensity and speed seen in the World Cup. For the United States, it will begin with a match against Group C favorite England on June 12 in Rustenburg, South Africa.

So he essentially has three weeks to prepare himself.

"He looks like he is ready to go," said central defender Jay DeMerit, who is close to completing his recovery from a lower abdominal strain. "Now all he needs is games. It will take a couple games, especially if you have had a lot of fitness training under your belt with your club. It's normally just a couple games to get that game sharpness."

Onyewu also has had to overcome the mental obstacle of jumping, because it was that act that led to the injury.

"Regardless of whether my knee was fine or not, it was always in the back of my mind: 'Do I want to do it?' " he said. "The doctors kept on saying, 'You are not going to hurt it again. It's reinforced.' You always have that mind-thought that maybe it might."

Onyewu's imposing presence and experience -- he started in the 2006 World Cup -- are vital to the U.S. backline. If he is ready to play, he will join DeMerit or captain Carlos Bocanegra in central defense.

"I feel really good," he said. "Thankfully, I am at the point right now that I can compete and I am training regularly and getting fit."

U.S. notes: Commenting on his own injury, DeMerit said that "every day is a new positive, so we are well on track." He participated in portions of training Thursday. . . . Defenders Chad Marshall (hamstring) and Bocanegra (abdominal) were involved throughout the session while forward Eddie Johnson (hamstring) did everything except late running drills.

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