By FRANCO PANIZO
Oguchi Onyewu's place on the U.S. national team's World Cup roster may be all but assured, but many questions still remain about his ability to perform at the game's highest level.
Onyewu has fully recovered from the torn patellar tendon he suffered in a 2-2 draw against Costa Rica in October, but the AC Milan defender has yet to step on the field for anything but training, raising red flags from fans and media alike.
Those concerns, and the questions that come with them, should be addressed to an extent when the first of three friendlies prior to the World Cup is played on Tuesday against the Czech Republic in Hartford, CT. While the match will be used largely to test the fringe players before head coach Bob Bradley trims his roster to 23, it will also serve as a way to gauge just how far Onyewu has come since returning to training.
"When you see somebody back on the field, especially in training at times sometimes you create games that are in tighter spaces," said Bradley. "Everything is very fast because it is tighter space and the reactions and the tempo, everything is incredibly fast.
"Sometimes as a player is coming back from a period of time off, in those kinds of situations it's almost more difficult than a regular game. You can see moments when to release a pass or something takes a split second too long, but we're always confident that those are the kind of training sessions that get players back where they need to be quickly."
It is those training sessions, combined with the double days he was doing with AC Milan, that have Onyewu feeling prepared for the upcoming friendlies. More importantly, Onyewu believes there won't be any rust if he lines up against the Czechs on May 25 and Turkey four days later.
"Personally, if given the opportunity to play I want to show to everybody (I'm ready)," said Onyewu. "I'm sure you read blogs, or magazine articles or newspaper articles that a lot of people are saying that I won't come back like I was.
"I'm going to go out there and agree with them. I won't come back how I was, I'm going to come back stronger. I don't think right now I'm the same player I was seven months ago regardless of what anyone thinks. I'm going to use this year to prove that."
A repeat showing of the Confederations Cup would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Last summer's run to the final, which included a historic 2-0 triumph against Spain and a 3-0 dismantling of African champion Egypt, showed that when Onyewu is on top of his game, the team is that much more difficult to break down.
Heading into his second World Cup, Onyewu understands his role is not just to play stout defensively, but to help provide leadership to the younger guys that make the squad.
"(In 2006) I was the newcomer, the youngster in the group," said Onyewu. "Right now, I don't like to say I'm old, but I'm one of the veterans of this cycle. I think boths teams were very, very talented. I think this team has more youth to it, which can help us and hopefully it will."
With a much younger team heading into the World Cup, Onyewu's leadership abilities will be put to the test along with his sharpness and fitness.
"I don't think there is any element of the game that I haven't taken part of in as of yet," said Onyewu. "The sprinting, cutting, fitness, jumping, heading, all of that is where it should be, where it needs to be for me to compete at the highest level. I'm ready to go at it and to put to rest all these concerns from people."
Onyewu's first chance to do that will likely come on Tuesday.