Q & A: U.S. MNT Defender Oguchi Onyewu Adapting to New Surroundings in Twente
For the last five years, Oguchi Onyewu has been an unmistakable presence in the center of the U.S. defense, not the least of which due to his 6-foot-4-inch frame. A two-time World Cup veteran and holder of a pair of Gold Cup medals, Gooch has been a force. The last two summers have been a roller coaster ride for the Olney, Md., native, beginning with a move to legendary Italian powerhouse AC Milan. A bad knee injury on Oct. 14, 2009, in the final match of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup started the timer on his rehabilitation effort with the goal of being ready for South Africa.
He gamely returned to the field and started the first two matches of the World Cup against England and Slovenia, but the process of trying to earn playing time in one of Europe’s top defenses proved formidable. Badly wanting to get back on the field, he found the perfect opportunity to go on loan at FC Twente, with a slight twist. Reuniting with Michel Preud’homme from his time at Standard Liege, the boss asked Onyewu to move to left back.
He continues to learn the role at FC Twente as the side competes for the title in three competitions: the Dutch Eredivisie, the Dutch Cup, and the Europa League. Just as important, he has renewed vigor and enthusiasm for the hugely important opportunity for the national team at the Gold Cup this summer.
ussoccer.com: Before you went to Holland your language skills were pretty good with French and Italian. How is your Dutch coming along?
Oguchi Onyewu: “Unfortunately, the Dutch isn’t coming along as well as the other two languages, but there’s still time. We’ll see what happens in the future.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve been at FC Twente for quite some time now and are earning regular minutes as a starter. How have you settled into the club?
OO: “It’s always an interesting period whenever a player switches clubs, but based on the clientele here, the coaching staff, the players and their personalities, it’s been easy to get acclimated to the new situation and jump right in.”
ussoccer.com: How helpful was it for you that you had a familiar face in coach Michel Preud’homme with whom you’d been with at Standard Liège?
OO: “I think for any player it’s always a plus when there’s a prior relationship with the coach and he knows your strength and weaknesses and you don’t have to go through that period of unfamiliarity and walking on eggshells. That was definitely a big contributor in the decision I made to come here.”
ussoccer.com: Preud’homme is a familiar face for sure, but he puts you in an unfamiliar position. How did you find out you were going to be playing left back, and how have you enjoyed the times you’ve played in that position?
OO: “I found out I was playing left back when he asked me if I thought I was capable of it. I told him I will play anywhere on the field that he needed me. I guess that’s all he needed in terms of confirmation that I could play there. Obviously it’s not my strongest position and I obviously play in the center of the field most of the time, but I wanted to use this as an opportunity to gain experience at a different position and I think ultimately it can only help me in terms of my versatility on the field.”
ussoccer.com: Do you think it is helping you and have you’ve learned some things being in that position?
OO: “I think it definitely does help me especially with one-on-one defending, you’re more isolated on the side lines than in the middle. I think all of those factors contribute to helping me become a better central defender.”
ussoccer.com: Your time at Standard Liège you spent mostly at the top of the table. It’s the same thing now with FC Twente as you’re fighting not just for the championship, but also the Dutch Cup. Are you enjoying that title race as well?
OO: “Yes, definitely. I remember interviews I did after signing with the club, and reporters would ask me what my intentions were. I would tell them my aspirations were winning everything that we’re still in, which is the championship, the Dutch Cup final on May 8 against Ajax and also Europa League. A lot of people would think winning all three is far-fetched, but I think as long as were in a good position to compete in those you can always have high aspirations and expect the best of your team.”
ussoccer.com: Your move to FC Twente and the regular playing time in all of those competitions comes at a great time for the national team in terms of getting ready for the games against Argentina and Paraguay and ultimately the Gold Cup this summer…
OO: “Yes, definitely. I’m happy to have found a situation where I’m playing regular football again. In terms of my preparation for this summer with the U.S. team it can do nothing but help me. I’m hoping to have a strong summer with the U.S. team and hopefully regain possession of the Gold Cup title.”
ussoccer.com: The U.S. has drawn Canada, Panama and Guadeloupe in their Gold Cup group. You’ve faced Canada and Panama before in the Gold Cup. What do you expect from those teams in group play?
OO: “It’s true we’ve played those teams in the past. I think Panama and Canada are very strong teams. I also think Guadeloupe is a very strong team and a lot of people aren’t familiar with them but they have a lot of quality players. A lot of their origins are French players and a lot of people don’t know that. I think all three opponents are going to be very strong in group play. I think we have four good teams in our group and you have to see how each game plays out.”
ussoccer.com: You played on the Gold Cup winning team in 2005. For you in some ways it was consolidating your spot on the national team. You played in four of six matches including the final and the victory against Panama. What kind of opportunity does the Gold Cup present for a player to try to establish himself within the national team?
OO: “In 2005 when I was part of that winning Gold Cup team it presented an opportunity for me to establish myself on the national team defense and to make a name for myself and a mark in what I stood for. I think the same goes for any player that has the opportunity to do so in the Gold Cup, and not just the Gold Cup but in any competition with the national team. I think to be chosen on the Gold Cup roster is a little more special because we’re together for so long and everyone can see your worth day in and day out in the games and training and that goes a long way in terms of the program. For the younger players that will be given opportunities, I expect them to take advantage of that and to grab it with both hands and enjoy the time.”
ussoccer.com: You also scored your first goal with the national team in the 2005 Gold Cup. It was the game winner against Honduras in the semifinal. What do you remember about that goal?
OO: “To be honest, what I remember is being extremely tired in that game. I believe we were down 1-0 to Honduras and I think John O’Brien scored the first goal to tie it up. It was a hot day and everyone was dead tired. I believe I scored in the closing moments. When I saw the ball go in the back of the net I was just relieved we were through and we didn’t have to go into overtime because everyone was dead tired.”
ussoccer.com: You talked about how the Gold Cup is an opportunity to gel as a team because you’re together for so long. In 2007, the U.S. wins the Gold Cup again and it’s really the start of the Bob Bradley era, but more importantly that Gold Cup championship put the U.S. into the 2009 Confederations Cup. That same opportunity exists here with the winner going to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil. How much does that factor into the need to win this championship?
OO: “I think whenever the U.S. approaches this tournament we’re always approaching it to win. Regardless of if it’s contingent on the Confederations Cup spot or not. I think we take pride in the fact that we’ve won so many Gold Cup finals. But you take that pride aside and you throw in the Confederations Cup, and I think any team in CONCACAF wants to be part of that. Fortunately we got that opportunity in 2009 and we had such a great Confederations Cup run and we got so close to winning the whole tournament and I think a lot of players would love to taste that again. Given the opportunity we’re going to do everything we can to do that again. For the players that have experienced that already, we’re going to give 200 percent effort to be able to solidify that spot and for the new players that have watched that competition on TV, I’m sure they want to be part of it. I’m sure they’re going to do everything in their power to help us get there as well.”
ussoccer.com: There have been a lot of impressive moments in your career since 2005. You also had to deal with the difficulty of struggling with your injury that came in 2009 and everything leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. You’re now back playing regularly. Are you enjoying it?
OO: “I’m loving it. I’m actually feeling like a 21-year-old right now and time seems to be a non-factor in terms of my career. Obviously I’ve experienced some difficult times, notably in 2009 with everything that happened with my injury and lack of playing time in Italy. But that’s the nature of the beast. That’s the sport and sometimes you’re dealt cards and you have to adapt. That’s what I’m doing right now and I’m making the most of my opportunities. Right now I’m getting regular playing time and regular soccer minutes and I think the sky’s the limit for the future and right now I’m just looking ahead and looking forward.”