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Central D a key for USA in Costa Rica
by Ridge Mahoney, June 3rd, 2009 7AM
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[WORLD CUP QUALIFYING] On the eve of a tough qualifier in Costa Rica have surfaced reports of a legal action filed by U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu, claiming a rival player used racial taunts during a Belgian league game.

Standard Liege beat Anderlecht, 2-1, in the two-game playoff to win the league title for the second straight season. During the first leg, a 1-1 tie, Onyewu alleges Anderlecht player Jelle Van Damme called him a "dirty monkey" several times. A lawyer representing Onyewu, Jean-Louis Dupont, filed a complaint in a Brussels court Tuesday.

"He was convinced it was his duty to lodge the complaint," Dupont said to the Associated Press. "It is not a question whether Van Damme is racist. The issue is that these slurs are still used on the pitch, and are being used because they know it hurts."

According to an AP story Van Damme has denied the allegations.

It's yet another turn in the career of Onyewu, who played two college seasons at Clemson before heading overseas to play for French club Metz, earned a contract with Standard Liege during a loan spell, went on loan again to Newcastle, and turned down a move to Spain while establishing himself as one of the top defenders in Belgium and a stalwart in the U.S. back line.

"He played a lot of games," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley of Onyewu earlier this year. Onyewu has played 40 times for the USA since his debut in 2004. "Defensively he was consistent. The defensive record we had with the national team and the defensive record Standard Liege had were both good ones.

"The guys who played key roles in that should feel that they did their jobs well. He's contributed with some goals on set pieces and I think he's matured."

The threat that Onyewu (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) presents on dead balls has produced goals for theUSA, both directly and on rebounds, yet much of the U.S success in the next year will likely depend on how solidly he and central partner Carlos Bocanegra can perform in the middle., though at Rennes this past season Bocanegra played left back.

"I could have said Carlos instead of Gooch because in some ways I feel good about the improvement both have shown," said Bradley of the duo. "The first half of the year because Carlos was leaving Fulham he was a little bit out of the picture. Certainly Carlos has had a good, steady run with Rennes and they've had some success.

"Maturity, consistency, and providing the kind of solid play in the center of the back, and he's gone to the left with Rennes, has filled that team's need to be successful."

Bocanegra hopes to erase memories of the last visit to Saprissa in October, 2005. With the USA already qualified for the 2006 World Cup, Costa Rica destroyed the Americans, 3-0.

"That was a real eye-opener for me," said Bocanegra. "That was the first time I'd played for the U.S. where we were really dominated."

Onyewu, 27, has played out his contract with Standard Liege after five seasons and is weighing his options. Unless sidelined by injury, he'll likely accompany the team to South Africa for the Confederations Cup during which the USA plays Italy, Brazil and Egypt in the first round.

The U.S. trained on the artificial turf at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Monday and Tuesday to get familiar with the surface installed in 2004 under permission from FIFA, which earlier this decade lifted its ban on official matches being played on anything but grass.

"Obviously, you know, we're not used to playing on turf, but we're going to deal with the fact that we have to," said Onyewu, who also played in the team's last visit to Saprissa.

"During training, we're becoming better acclimated to the surface, and over in the States we trained a couple of times on turf, so we're getting used to it more and more, day by day."

He is one of five players carrying a caution into the Costa Rica game. The others on yellows are Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Frankie Hejduk, who is suffering from a groin injury but did accompany the team to Costa Rica.

Bocanegra is one of eight players in the squad who played a full 90 minutes for their club teams last weekend. A tricky surface, a tough opponent, possible fatigue, and another qualifier looming Saturday against Honduras in Chicago add up to a very demanding test.

"We certainly know the fans are right on top of the field, the game is usually fast, and there's a real atmosphere, and one that is exciting but challenging," said Bradley to "We've learned in other World Cup qualifiers, in El Salvador and Guatemala, the stakes are high, the fans are there to support their team, and we must as a team stick together.

"We must understand how to try to play the way we want to play, and we've had good experiences thus far, so we'll rely on those experiences. We also have players who have played here, so it all works for us."

With a year to go before the 2010 World Cup, Onyewu knows this next career move is a crucial one. Most field players peak in their late 20s, and to best prepare for the World Cup he'll need regular playing time in a competitive league. A return to England is one possibility; he's not offering any information other than to emphasize the timing is just about perfect.

"You have to move on and turn the page," says Onyewu. "Now is as good a time as ever to advance my career and try something different. I have aspirations for higher goals and hopefully I'll be able to achieve them."



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