When Oguchi Onyewu decided to sign for a professional team, going to France just seemed right. Now that the U.S. Men’s National Team is in Paris to play France for the first time since 1979, Gooch remembers what it was like to start his career in a foreign country, fresh out of college and with little knowledge of the language or culture.
Professional clubs in Scandinavia, Germany and France had been tracking Onyewu since his impressive performance in the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup, with clubs wanting his signature after the team’s fourth place finish at the tournament. Gooch opted to give college a try instead, and after two years at Clemson and a run in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup, the interest remained high.
“After all that experience, I still had the opportunity to come to Europe, and so I took it and came over here,” Onyewu said. “As far as I know, there were a number of teams when I was younger tracking me outside of Metz, but for me the best fit personally ended up being Metz. I never second guessed the decision.”
Onyewu signed with FC Metz in March of 2002 but did not see playing time until almost a year later because of the team going into administration and Onyewu’s difficulty gaining clearance from the French league. When he made his debut on Jan. 19, 2003, it was as a substitute in a Coupe de France match against Bordeaux.
“When I came in the game, I came in as an attacking right back slash right midfielder,” he said. “Obviously back then I was a lot slimmer, and I played right back because that’s how I was formed as a professional. We ended up winning the game. I had a very strong debut, almost scored a goal, almost had an assist, and that’s where my professional career took off.”
The rest of Onyewu’s initial journey as a professional was not quite as smooth. Just the process of moving to France and starting a new life proved tough for the young defender.
“It was definitely an adaption period, a learning experience, because I was very young at only 19-20 years old,” said Onyewu. “To get used to the European culture and style of play and everything was basically for me an immersion period into Europe. As a young professional, it helped me to see how things operate and how it works differently from in America. Maybe it was difficult early on, but all in all I’m thankful I went through it.”
The difficulty continued as Onyewu was sent on loan following a coaching change. Metz’s new coach wanted the Maryland native to get more regular playing time, and Onyewu was off to Belgium to play with a small club called Louviere.
“I played there for a year, had a really strong year with them, and from there I signed a contract with Standard Liege,” he said. “They bought my rights from FC Metz, and I think everybody else knows my story from there. Obviously the loan deal was a hit to me, and it wasn’t something I was too thrilled about, but you take the bad with the good, and you work at it. Everything else falls into place.”
Despite the rocky start, Gooch said he is still glad today that he signed with Metz and is thankful for the foundation the club gave him, especially in working hard and becoming humble.
“I think when you are young and rated highly and you come to a foreign atmosphere and a foreign environment where the players are just as good as you are—if not better—you have to prove yourself that much more. I think my work ethic definitely improved once I came to Europe.”
Off the field, Onyewu learned to speak French fluently and made many friends with whom he still keeps in contact today. He is excited to be back in the country where his professional career took root, and he is glad that the U.S. has the opportunity to play France in Paris.
“For our National Team to have the chance to play in the Stade de France against such a great national team is special. I’m relishing the opportunity for our team to measure where we are as a group and to use it as a building block in terms of our future progression,” Onyewu said.
And for Onyewu, it’s another step in a professional career that began right here in France.