Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By MIKE NASTRI
HARRISON, N.J. — The U.S. men's national team might have lost to Ecuador on Tuesday night, but there was one overwhelming bright spot for Jurgen Klinsmann and Co.
Oguchi Onyewu is back.
In Onyewu's first full 90-minute game for the United States since the World Cup match against England, the 6-foot-4 centerback proved to be the enforcer that U.S. fans remember from the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Onyewu moved freely, unhampered by the knee surgery that has plagued him for the past two years. Gooch, as he's affectionately called by fans and teammates, won ball after ball, both in the air and on the ground.
"Gooch in the back, he's back," said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "It was awesome to see. He's getting his rhythm, and his presence is amazing and really good to watch."
Centerback is a shallow position for the United States, and Klinsmann has been unable to find a capable partner for captain Carlos Bocanegra. Michael Orozco Fiscal, who had started three of the four matches under Klinsmann prior to Tuesday, has failed to impress, while Clarence Goodson, who started every match for the United States in the Gold Cup earlier this summer, has started only once since the German took over the reins.
Onyewu, who was a staple in the back for the U.S. teams that won two Gold Cups and finished runners-up in that memorable Confederations Cup run, seized his opportunity to start after a strong substitute performance against Honduras on Saturday, reminding everyone that he can still be that intimidating presence in the back.
"Gooch is an important guy for us," said midfielder Michael Bradley. "When you look at the national team in the last four, five, six years, Gooch has played a big role in its success. He's a guy that we count on. I think everyone is excited that things in Portugal are going well for him. In all ways, we need as many guys as possible fit and sharp and playing regularly for their clubs. He's one of those guys right now and that's a great thing."
Onyewu is finally receiving consistent playing time at the club level, something that hasn't happened since he left Standard Liege at the end of the 2008-09 season. Onyewu already started nine games this season between Sporting Clube de Portugal and the U.S. team, more than half of the total he started all last season when he was sent on loan from AC Milan to FC Twente.
"There's no substitute to playing games," said Onyewu, a two-time Belgian league Best XI selection. "Fortunately I find myself in a good situation with Sporting.
"You get more confidence and you get more comfortable with yourself. I just try and emulate that when I come over here with the national team."
His confidence was on full display against Ecuador on a rare run forward as the United States was pushing for a stoppage-time equalizer. Onyewu, not known for his on-ball technical skill, ran onto a pass from Clint Dempsey, cut back on his defender and slotted a return pass off the outside of his foot to Dempsey, whose shot from just inside the area was ultimately blocked and deflected into the side netting.
Onyewu's resurgent confidence has helped the 29-year-old become a fixture for Sporting, starting the last four league games. All four of those matches resulted in wins as Sporting continues to climb up the table after an 0-1-2 start. If Onyewu can continue to replicate performances like the one he delivered Tuesday, it may not be long until he is once again a fixture for the U.S. team as well.
"I'm just happy right now," said Onyewu. "I'm in a good place. I feel confident, and a lot of my past injuries are behind me, so I think I can focus more on progressing and going forward from here."