The son of Nigerian immigrants, Oguchi Onyewu grew up in Washington, D.C., and was a member of U.S. Soccer's first U-17 Bradenton Residency group with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Kyle Beckerman and Co. He moved to France after his sophomore season with Clemson and his dozen years in Europe included five years with Standard Liege in Belgium, which he considers his second home. In addition to being the secretary general for Royal Excelsior Virton in Belgium's second division, Onyewu does on-air analysis for CBS Sports/Paramount+ for U.S. men's national team games.
SOCCER AMERICA: People have probably seen you most recently on TV doing the away games for CBS. How’d that come about and how do you like it?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: Since 2019 I was introduced to a little bit of analyst work. I did a couple shows for Turner TNT's Champions League coverage. And then from there, in 2019 I did pretty much all of ESPN's college ACC games, doing the play-by-play.
Then in 2020 ... well everyone saw what happened in 2020. CBS later came to my media agent and they had gotten Champions League and most recently the national team games. My name and a few others got thrown into the mix, and they had a couple chemistry calls with different talent. Myself, Charlie Davies and Clint [Dempsey] clicked the best out of everybody.
SA: How much direction do you guys get from your producers on how to tackle the pregame content?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: At the end of the day, I would assume that people like myself, Clint and Charlie — we have "PhD's" in soccer. It's not necessarily the direction that someone's going to give us to speak on. We all have our own opinions and we all see the game completely differently. I think we have very different perspectives, very different personalities and viewpoints. I think that's resulted in a product that's really organic and really authentic. I think that the way we come off to the listeners or whoever's watching is very relatable and it's not stuffy.
SA: Besides the TV stuff, what else are you doing that you’re passionate about?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: In 2017, I launched my sports performance company Onyx Elite, which is based in Virginia. That's going really well — obviously I'm doing CBS with the national team, and then over here in Belgium I'm the secretary general [of Royal Excelsior Virton in Belgium's second division]. My hands are definitely full.
SA: Tell us a little more about your position as secretary general for Virton.
OGUCHI ONYEWU: Essentially, it's the equivalent of CEO. I'm responsible for administration, compliance, as well as the sporting side and assisting and supporting the sporting department. I'm here to make sure that everything functions and operates properly in the club. I'm the lead and point of reference to the pro league as well the Belgian federation — I'm at all the meetings in regards to the voting for the club. Basically I'm the front man for the club for all aspects of operations.
Onyewu's career abroad started in France with Metz. Before finishing his playing career in 2017 with the Philadelphia Union, he played 163 games and won two titles with Standard Liege, and also played in Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy and England.
SA: When you look back on your career, how do you evaluate your time in Belgium?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: I tell people it's like my second country. I'm adopted into this country in a way — I spent a little bit over five years here, acquired my citizenship, won a few championships here and that really propelled my career. I'm appreciated here by the public, by the soccer community, I think I have a really good image here based on my passage in Belgium. It's a country I appreciate heavily as it's given me a lot just as much as I have given to it.
SA: You spent a lot of time on the field during that time with Vincent Kompany ... what was that like?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: Me and Vincent at that time — one we were playing on rival teams, and two we were kind of, on paper, comparable in stature: very tall, physically imposing center backs. Every year the Belgian league would nominate the best XI of the league. Him and I would always be the center backs. At that time, Anderlecht was winning championships and Vincent was at the helm of that. We all know where his career propelled from there. Great player — but there were a lot of rival matches between the two of us early on.
SA: So I'm sure you got the better of him a bunch of times?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: [laughs] I think it was well balanced.
SA: You emerged onto the national team alongside the ‘99ers’ — the 1999 U-17 national team that made it to the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup.
OGUCHI ONYEWU: That U-17 team [in 1999] was a special team. I don't know if that many other players have made it up to the first team from the same U-17 team. You have Landon Donovan, Bobby Convey, myself, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman.
We were different — we were coached differently. Our coach at the time, John Ellinger, really instilled in us a confidence and let us understand 'respect all opponents, but fear nobody.' We went into every game with that mentality.We'd play against MLS teams in friendlies and they'd end up hating us because we were A-holes. We were out there to prove something every single game. That U-17 team was different, I'll say that.
SA: How was the environment back then for a youngster breaking into the first team for the national team?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: It was completely different — you can't really compare it to current times. There weren't a lot of us — there was a sprinkle here and a sprinkle there. When you were introduced to the national team, you almost got groomed into it and they almost put their arms around your shoulder and wanted you to grow, perform and do well.
My first couple camps, Eddie Pope and Tony Sanneh were very protective and encouraging of me. As a young player, you don't wanna mess up, make a mistake. You think the coach is going to criticize you for every little thing you do.
They told me, 'Relax. Play your game, you're fine, don't worry about it.' It was really refreshing because these were players I looked up to playing growing up. To have them play next to me and give me that breath of fresh air was great.
SA: A decade ago, with AC Milan, you were one of the few Americans who got a taste of the UEFA Champions League. What do you think about the number of Americans playing in it now?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: I think it's awesome. I'm glad that the MLS has grown exponentially in quality, size, number of teams, etc. But I've always been a supporter of European soccer. I believe my game wouldn't have progressed to where it went if I hadn't gone to Europe at an early age.
Some people have different experiences, but I loved seeing this young generation taking their chances at the highest level. Because ultimately, that's the only way you're going to get better. No disrespect to MLS — a league that hasn't been around in 50 years — you can't really compare to these European leagues and teams. I believe 100% that MLS will get there one day. But if you want to play against the best competition you have to go to Europe.
SA: Talk about the culture shock from playing ACC college ball to battling for playing time in France and Belgium.
OGUCHI ONYEWU: It was a wakeup call for sure. I had to learn French fairly quickly to communicate well enough with my teammates. The football is just a different football — it's hard to explain.
The easiest way to say it is that you're one of the 'top youth elites' in the country. And then you go to Europe and you're a small fish in a big pond because there's a million of you in Europe.
Kids there are bred to be [soccer] players. In America at the time, it almost happened by chance. I came into a culture where players even younger than me had been playing at academies that didn't even exist in America for years, perfecting their technical and tactical skills. It was either sink or swim.
SA: You were in the first Bradenton Residency group — can you compare that experience to the level of training kids in your position now can get in 2021? Things have changed a lot in 22 years.
OGUCHI ONYEWU: IMG and the residency program at that time — we were the guinea pigs. They didn't know how it was going to work. It worked so well with our group — we went to the semifinals of the world championship and we had a number of players who went on to be professionals. So they thought, 'this must be a winning formula. Let's keep on doing this.'
Unfortunately in terms of the progression, it just never really translated to another team. For us at that time in the late 90s, there was no place where you could get top-tier training everyday with the top talent everyday. We were either playing high school or club and then coming into national team camps.
The USA's fourth-place finishers at the 1999 U-17 World Cup in New Zealand. Standing (L-to-R): Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, D. J. Countess, Nelson Akwari, Kellen Kalso; kneeling: Kyle Beckerman, Bryan Jackson, Kenny Cutler, Jordan Cila, Seth Trembly.
SA: Playing high school soccer and then going to a national team camp. Wow.
OGUCHI ONYEWU: That's what it was. Now we're living together, training together, going to school together, so we're kind of forged this brotherhood. Even today we're all close, we're all friends, we had a very unique group of personalities and characters that I don't think you could replicate 10 times around.
Oguchi's favorite soccer movies:
Gol! The Dream Begins!
Like protagonist Santiago Munoz, Onyewu was at one point in his career an American playing for Newcastle United (Eleven appearances games in 2007 while on loan from Standard Liege.)
Bend it like Beckham
"For my former teammate." (Onyewu's time at AC Milan, for which he appeared in a UEFA Champions League game, overlapped with Beckham's Italy stint while on loan from the Galaxy.)
Starring Rodney Dangerfield.
SA: How do you gauge the balance of experience of this current roster of the U.S. national team compared to your day?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: It's apples to oranges. I believe that sports in general have progressed to a more youthful look in every aspect. I think even basketball looks younger than it used to — or maybe I'm just getting older.
I would say that when I was a pro at 19 and in the locker room there were maybe four or five other players from 19-23. The rest of them were 25-32 years old. Now it's the complete opposite — you have teams overrun by the youth side. And it's like, once you hit 28 you're over the hill. To say that we need [age and experience] you would be fighting the evolution of the sport, in a sense.
Regardless of their age, our young players are the best players we have in the country. Maybe it's not a question of age, but more of talent. I have no qualms with their age because for me football has no age. If you're good enough you're old enough.
SA: What are some things that the mainstream U.S. Soccer fan might not appreciate or understand about World Cup Qualifying that you can speak to given your playing experience?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: I mean, obviously everyone has spoken about the environment. I don't think you can actually understand it unless you're in it. What do you do when chicken heads are thrown at you on the field? Or you're getting spit?
In reality, people can't put themselves in that situation because it's different. The majority of fans haven't played in altitude like at the Azteca [altitude: 7,349 feet]. The toll that puts on your lungs and on your body and how after five minutes, you're gassed. I'm sure watching on TV people go, 'Wow, these people are out of shape.' But it's like, 'Nah, I can't run because the altitude is killing me.'
So there's all these different factors you have to fight through. Nowhere are there excuses because every generation prior had to do the same. These are just things to highlight and to take into consideration when watching a game to get the full scope of what actually is going on outside of just the soccer ball.
SA: The U.S. Soccer community has a right to know: What really went down when you allegedly had a fight with Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: You want to know what happened? I would tell you but it would stretch out this interview for another hour, so I'm going to have to decline responding to that.
SA: I’ve read about the racial abuse you’ve faced in your career and it is well documented — but it seems the conversations we’re having now and the way the sport is handling racist fans and players is a lot different now. Talk about that a little bit?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: Oof, yeah. I've been punched in the face by fans, I've been attacked in my car by fans, I've been called racial slurs by fans and opposing players. I would say the football body's response to it right now is night and day to where it was earlier in my career in terms of the repercussions. There were hardly any back then. Whereas now, there are fines, lifetime bans, different things like that.
Is it where it needs to be? No, I think it's progressed, but until it's eradicated the job is not done.
SA: What are some things governing bodies could do to get us closer to that point?
OGUCHI ONYEWU: Basically, zero tolerance means zero tolerance. The second you see it, ban people for life. For me, that's on the individual side.
People react when their wallets are hurting, right? If you have a club whose supporters are being less than great then fine the club. Heavily. I guarantee they're going to do their due diligence to make sure those fans never do that again.
Put the responsibility onto the clubs, because they want to take it off of their responsibility but at some point they have to be responsible for their fans. In this world, people only react when their wallets are hit. If that's what it's going to take, then that's what needs to happen.