He’d like to play another year or two and, after starting 22 times last season, he believes he’s got plenty left to offer. His agent is reaching out to MLS teams that might have use for a 6-foot-4 central defender with 16 years of pro experience.
But Onyewu also recognizes that, even after general managers and coaches around the league figure out what they still need before the March openers, he might be out of opportunities.
“I’d rather not quit now. I’m staying ready,” the Olney, Md., native said this week. “At the same time, I am always thinking about what is next. I haven’t transitioned, but I know football is not forever. What do you want to do afterward? What’s out there?”
For several years, Onyewu has been taking online courses with Clemson in pursuit of a degree in language and international trade, with a discipline in French. He had attended the university for two seasons before turning pro in 2002, signing first in France and then Belgium, where he enjoyed five years with Standard Liege and rocketed into U.S. national team prominence.
His European adventure also took him to Newcastle, AC Milan, Twente, Sporting Lisbon, Malaga, Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton. With the national team, he made 69 appearances and scored six goals. His last international match came in a 2014 friendly against Ukraine.
Onyewu has been chipping away at his degree requirements, typically taking two courses at a time. He said he’s now classified as a senior. Eventually, he’ll need to attend classes on the South Carolina campus.
Meantime, Onyewu has also launched ONYX Elite, a personal-training business with a location in Richmond and a Reston branch affiliated with a fitness center. He is the founder and chief executive.
“I am fortunate that I won’t find myself flat on my face” when his soccer career ends, he said. “My family really grounded me: As much success as you have in soccer, it’s not forever. Transition will come and you have to be prepared for it.”
And so, about four years ago while playing in England, he resumed his studies. And in 2014 he began to strategize a business plan with longtime friend Chris Gorres, a trainer whose clientele has included Ryan Kerrigan (Washington Redskins), Brandon Guyer (Cleveland Indians), women’s soccer standout Ali Krieger and Onyewu himself.
“A lot of athletes get caught in the euphoria of the sport and almost think it’s never going to end until it does, and they say, ‘What do I do now?’ ” Onyewu said. “Or, because they’ve concentrated on the sport for so long, ‘What do I like to do outside the sport?’
“You hear the stories of people going through depression or going broke. I never wanted to be that athlete. No one does, but sometimes you find yourself in it. Unless you make efforts not to put yourself in that situation, it’s what could happen.”
Onyewu, a Sherwood High graduate, owns a home in Bethesda and visits the Richmond office periodically. When he’s there, it’s business, both as an executive and athlete; the staff puts him through two-a-day workouts in order to stay fit in case an MLS call comes.
Last season, Onyewu was on a one-year contract with a one-year option. He started 19 of the first 23 league matches and, on his birthday, scored on a header against D.C. United with dozens of family and friends in attendance at RFK Stadium. It was his first appearance there since rupturing a patellar tendon during a U.S. World Cup qualifier 7 ½ years earlier against Costa Rica.
Over the last 11 matches, however, he started just three times as Richie Marquez, 25, and rookie Jack Elliott partnered in the middle. When the season ended, Philadelphia declined to exercise Onyewu’s option. The Union is also grooming former Georgetown standout Josh Yaro, 23.
“I thought I performed quite well,” said Onyewu, who, according to players’ association data, earned MLS’s senior base minimum of $65,000. “They went in a different direction.”
After a two-year injury layoff, he believed he had proven his value to both the Union and the rest of the league, saying “all the doubts should’ve been erased. My physical ability is still there to perform at a high level on a consistent basis.”
His only injury was a mid-season concussion that didn’t sideline him for any league matches.
Geographically, D.C. United would make sense. He trained with the club informally at various times over the years, and he and D.C. Coach Ben Olsen were teammates on the 2006 World Cup squad. But United is set at center back after acquiring Frederic Brillant from New York City FC and welcoming back Steve Birnbaum, Kofi Opare and Jalen Robinson.
Onyewu is among several former national team players and MLS veterans seeking a home this winter, joining, among others, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu, Bobby Boswell, Brad Evans, Charlie Davies and Sean Franklin.
With a Belgian passport, he could find work in the European lower tier. After many years away, Onyewu would prefer to stay in MLS.
“People counted me out last year, but I could say, ‘I am still here, I am still playing. Hello! I’m not dead yet.’ Right now, it’s a waiting game.”