To a Philadelphia Union roster very much in flux comes a player anxious to find his feet again after many years of jumping from club to club.
Yes, Oguchi Onewu has accrued 69 caps, represented the U.S. at two World Cups, and played club ball for more than a decade in Europe, but he’ll be 35 in May and has rarely stepped into a competitive match in the past two years. Still, he and the Union staff see an opportunity to utilize his talents and background of the man nickamed "Gooch" on and off the field.
When his signing was announced by the team Monday, sporting director Earnie Stewart said, "Oguchi is a big, physical presence who brings experience and veteran professionalism, important traits that we believe will be an asset for our group of young defenders. He provides excellent depth at the centerback position and we are pleased that we were able to add him to our squad.”
Released by Charlton Athletic last May, Onyewu has been bouncing from team to team since suffering a ruptured patellar tendon playing for the U.S. in a Hexagonal match against Costa Rica Oct. 14, 2009. He started his pro career in 2002 with French club Metz following two years of college ball at Clemson, and his career blossomed in 2004 with a move to Standard Liege in Belgium; he scored 16 goals in 178 appearances (all competitions) to earn a transfer to AC Milan.
His size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and strength –- former U.S. head coach Bruce Arena once said “God took care of that” when asked about Onyewu’s physique and athletic attributes -- carried him through some intervals but he struggled to regain his timing and sharpness. He suffered the injury several months after joining the legendary Italian club and never got into a first-team game.
Since leaving Milan in 2011 he’s played only 40 matches for clubs in Portugal, Spain, and England. When he joined the Union for preseason training last week, head coach Jim Curtin said he was not on trial. In any case, something clicked when he got together with Stewart, former U.S. teammates Maurice Edu and Alejandro Bedoya and technical director Chris Albright. He added Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll to the list of familiar faces.
"So there’s a number of players I’ve known prior to signing here,” he said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. “That was a good surprise for me. I think this is probably the best situation I could have ended up with right now.
“Thus far in my career, I’ve never had the opportunity to play with anybody I have known. This is a good, new experience for me.”
He believes a lack of experience cost the Union points last year. It failed to win any of its last seven games, losing five, and wound up in sixth place. Rookie Keegan Rosenberry played every minute to earn a place among the three Rookie of the Year finalists, and former Georgetown teammate Josh Yaro started 15 of his 17 appearances despite missing several weeks with a separated shoulder and suffering a head injury in a fearsome late-season collision. Defender Richie Marquez, in his third pro season, started all 33 of his appearances after playing 21 games in 2015 and zero the year before.
There are 10 players 24 or younger on the first-team roster. It sorely missed the presence of Edu, who sat out most of the season recovering from a stress fracture, then after managing to play three USL games with Bethlehelm Steel suffered a broken leg in training prior to the season finale.
“The Philadelphia Union last year, they had a good squad but if you had to pick an element that they were lacking it would be the experience of a veteran player,” said Onyewu. “Obviously if you want to check boxes, I think that I kind of fall into that role.”
Yet he’s adamant about leading on the field instead of from the sideline. Years of rehabbing injuries and watching from the bench has not dampened his competitive spirit. “For me personally, I don’t ever join a team not intending to play,” he said. “My ambition and goal obviously is to play every minute and every opportunity that I can.
“Whether that’s a reality in the season – because a lot of things happen – there are different competitions, injuries, [you] pick up little nicks here and there, but goal is obviously to compete. I’ve never not been a 90-minute player, so to answer your question, I’m here to make an impact to help the squad.”