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International Soccer
'Gooch' makes historic move for U.S. soccer

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Oguchi Onyewu was being targeted by a group of solid European clubs, but when AC Milan swooped in to snare the intimidating defender nicknamed "Gooch" Tuesday, it marked a historic day for U.S. soccer.

Onyewu becomes the first U.S. player to join Serie A, Italy's top league, since the mid-1990s when former American defender Alexi Lalas used the 1994 World Cup as launching pad to take his trademark red hair and goatee to Padova.

Onyewu was towering presence for the U.S. last month in the FIFA Confederations Cup, and AC Milan wasn't the only club to notice.

Consider it perfect timing for the 6-foot-4 center back, who helped the U.S. to the final of the tournament. The Americans, with Onyewu starting all five games on defense, upset then No. 1 Spain 2-0 in the semifinals and lost to now No. 1- ranked Brazil 3-2 in the final.

Onyewu has held down a regular starting job for the United States for years and even won the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year in 2006, ending a long drought for defenders. Lalas was the last defender to win the award in 1995.

The 27-year-old has played his entire club career in Europe, starting with Metz in France in 2002. He was with Metz from 2002-04, spending time on loan with La Louviere in Belgium in 2003.

Oguchi Onyewu has played his entire club career in Europe.
He joined Belgium's Standard Liege on loan in 2004 and later made a permanent switch to the club. He stayed with Liege for five seasons - with the exception of a loan to England's Newcastle in 2007 - and excelled in the Jupiler League.

Onyewu played almost 200 games for Standard, which captured the last two league titles, and was twice named to the Belgian league Best XI.

Despite his solid resume, Onyewu never proved he was the complete package - and the top European clubs never considered him a suitable option.

Onyewu's contract with Standard Liege expired last month, and without a deal in place with the Belgian club - or any other teams - his future hinged on what he accomplished under the spotlight at last month's tournament.

Onyewu was solid during the tournament, during which the U.S. played Brazil two times, and Spain, Italy and Egypt. He rarely made a mistake in the middle, even when the Americans were down to 10 men against Italy and Brazil in group play.

He proved his skills were up to par with some of the top players in the world, helping shut down Spain star Fernando Torres. His physical strength - which has always been an asset - continued to serve him well. He dominated the air in the U.S. end, and was always a threat to score off set pieces.

Onyewu's gamble paid off.

Rumors had Onyewu joining an English side, with promoted Birmingham City among the potential suitors. Then Dutch power Ajax joined the race, followed by Genoa in Italy.

All great choices for Onyewu to take another step in his development, and also help the U.S. take another step toward joining the world's elite.

Onyewu didn't jump at those potential moves, though, and the offers got better.

Spanish giant Real Madrid, which just spent more than $200,000,000 to acquire the last two FIFA World Players of the Year in Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, was the next club to show interest.

If Real was a possibility, Onyewu's options were essentially unlimited.

AC Milan - second to only Madrid with seven Champions League titles - ended the speculation by swooping in to sign Onyewu to a three-year contract.

"It's very exciting," U.S. coach Bob Bradley told the Washington Post. "It's one of the great clubs in the world and I think it's a terrific opportunity for him and certainly the experience he'll get there ... will really be important as we move forward with our national team."

With the move, Onyewu immediately becomes the most high-profile player on the United States team.

When Lalas moved to Italy, he joined a club just hoping to survive in Serie A. He anchored the team's defense, but Padova finished last in his first season in 1994-95 and only survived by winning a relegation playoff.

He signed a contract with Major League Soccer after one season, but remained in Italy with Padova on loan the next season when the MLS didn't debut until 1996.

Onyewu is not on the same path as Lalas. If Onyewu ever plays in MLS, it likely won't be for another decade.

Gooch becomes the sixth regular starter from the Confederations Cup team to be on a club in a top European league - England, Germany, Italy or Spain.

Before Onyewu signed with AC Milan, the most high-profile United States player was goalie Tim Howard.

Howard, who previously played for Manchester United and is currently Everton's starter, has been a star in the English Premier League for a few seasons.

But Howard is just continuing a trend of U.S. goalies having success in Europe. Former American goalkeepers Brad Friedel, who still plays with Aston Villa, and Kasey Keller, who no longer plays in Europe, excelled overseas.

Howard's backup on the national team, Brad Guzan, is Friedel's backup at Villa.

In the field, Clint Dempsey with England's Fulham has been one of the best U.S. players in Europe. Michael Bradley, with Germany's Monchengladbach, has emerged as another exciting talent and is also being targeted by bigger clubs.

Jonathan Spector is with West Ham, Jozy Altidore is owned by Spain's Villarreal but was loaned to lower division side Xerez for the second half of last season, and Steve Cherundolo - who missed last month's tournament due to injury - is in Germany with Hannover.

DeMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu are both with Scotland's Rangers, U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra used to play in England with Fulham and is currently in France with Rennes.

Benny Feilhaber, Charlie Davies and Jay DeMerit are playing in lower leagues in Europe as well as other U.S. fringe players, and Landon Donovan - who failed to remain in the German Bundesliga despite a trial with Bayern Munich earlier this year - and Ricardo Clark are in MLS with other players trying to earn a regular role.

American players have made more of an impact in Europe, but no field player has ever had a chance like Onyewu was handed by AC Milan.

"It's incredible, ... it opens a lot of doors for Americans," Davies told the Post. "And he was able to break that barrier for Americans to be able to play at a big time club.

"I think a lot of guys coming up, younger guys, can have a dream that they can play for a team like Real Madrid or Barcelona because Gooch was able to break that barrier."

Now the easy part is over for Onyewu. No longer does he just have to impress AC Milan, but he has to unseat some of the top players in the world just to get on the field at the San Siro.

He has to help AC Milan succeed, and that means winning Serie A titles - which the team hasn't done since 2004 - and the Champions League.

Onyewu should get a chance to compete for a starting spot, with the aging club in rebuilding mode. In addition to selling Kaka, the 17-time Serie A champions will be without Italy legend Paolo Maldini - a defensive anchor for 23 years - who retired at the end of last season.

Onyewu proved at the Confederations Cup he can handle pressure, and he'll face it every day in Serie A, where earning a starting role for one of the top club teams in the world would be an even more historic moment for American soccer.



Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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