Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is Oguchi Onyewu No Longer a First-Team Choice for the United States?

AP Photo/Elise Amdendola

When the United States took on Canada in their opening match in the Gold Cup on Tuesday, the U.S. put their A-team on the field.

That is, their A-team minus one usual starter: Oguchi Onyewu. The mainstay in the Yanks starting lineup since 2005 was benched for Tuesday’s match.

Onyewu has had Gold Cup success before, scoring an extra time winner in the semifinal match in 2005 and being named to that tournament’s Best XI. However the past two years have not gone smoothly for the mammoth defender, and now his time with the National Team may have come to an end.

Once the cornerstone of the defensive back line, Onyewu’s career has taken a turn for the worse since 2009. He signed with AC Milan, one of the top teams in Italy, in July and has made zero Serie A appearances with the club and only one (brief) Champions League appearance. Much of that lack of playing time stems from an injury suffered with the USMNT.

In an October World Cup Qualifying match against Costa Rica, Onyewu leapt up for a header only to fall in a heap, suffering a patellar tendon rupture in his left knee. He recovered, rehabbed and came back in time for the 2010 World Cup, but with so much time off it was obvious to the media, fans and coach Bob Bradley that “Gooch” was extremely rusty. He started the first game of the group stage, was subbed out of the second one and was benched for the remainder of the tournament.

After the World Cup there were some bright spots that some thought meant he was returning to form. In an October friendly against Poland, wearing the captain’s armband, he scored a goal to put the team ahead 2-1 (they would eventually settle for a draw, 2-2).

In November he got into a skirmish during practice with teammate and world-superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which if nothing else, suggested that the big man still had some fight left in him.

Then in January he was loaned to Dutch club FC Twente, where he was a regular in the starting lineup, albeit at left fullback rather than his normal central defense position. Still, the playing time was what everyone thought he needed.

However after he started the recent team’s friendly against Spain (when they were thrashed, 4-0) Onyewu was benched for the first game of a very important Gold Cup.

People have been highly critical of Onyewu in the past two years. He has looked slow, out of sync with the rest of his team and unfit. He has had opportunities with the National Team to prove to the coaching staff that he has recovered but he has not looked comfortable on the field in the majority of games.

Finally Bradley has benched him, and his status with the National Team does not look good. In a game featuring the USMNT’s top lineup, Onyewu was benched in favor of Clarence Goodson and Tim Ream.

Goodson is a tall defender who is very good in the air, gets forward on set pieces and scores as well as Onyewu did in his prime and is a key player for his club team.

Ream is considered to be the next big thing for the U.S. defense. He is very calm and poised on the ball. His best skill is his passing ability out of the backfield. This allows for the team to actually obtain possession and gets the transition going the other way going much faster and smoother. Thos two things are instrumental in the USMNT’s scheme and helping the team improve against some of the better teams in the world.

Also on the depth chart is Jay DeMerit, a tenacious defender with a very good work ethic (currently recovering from an injury) and prospects Omar Gonzalez and Ike Opara. Maurice Edu played the position in the 2008 Olympics, Jonathan Spector can play any position along the back line and other players with National Team experience (Ricardo Clark, Heath Pearce and Marvelle Wynne) have moved positions and are playing centerback for their clubs. There is also the possibility that other young fullbacks that we haven’t heard of yet get hot, much like how Edson Buddle and Herzulez Gomez did before the previous World Cup.

Bob Bradley was patient with Onyewu’s recovery, but now it seems, with other options becoming available, that his patience has worn thin.

There was a time where an average or hurt Onyewu was still head and shoulders the best defender in the U.S. player pool.

If the game against Canada is any indication, those days, as well as his days playing with the first-choice team, are over.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Athletes Tweeting About Shaq

AP Photo/John Raoux

Shaquille O'Neal is the reason why I fell in love with basketball. He was incredibly talented, charismatic, humble, personable and entertaining. I saw "Kazaam" and "Steel" and I cried when he left my favorite team--the Orlando Magic (simply because he played for them)-- for the Los Angeles Lakers. I always remained in awe when he would throw down an amazing slam dunk. I laughed during almost all of his press conferences and was impressed when he danced at the All-Star game with the Jabbawockeez.

I will have so many fond memories of The Diesel and will thank him for them and for getting me excited about basketball.

However, I am not the only one to appreciate The Big Shaqtus/Shamrock. So many others respected him, especially fellow professional athletes. Here's how some of them paid tribute to The Big Aristotle (@SHAQ) on their Twitter pages.

Scottie Pippin, Hall-of-Fame NBA player, most notably with the Chicago Bulls: @ScottiePippin "Congrats to @SHAQ on a Hall of Fame career. He is truly one of the game's most dominant big men to ever play."

LeBron James, NBA, Miami Heat: @KingJames "What a career for Shaq Diesel!! The most dominating force to ever play the game. Great person to be around as well. Comedy all the time!!"

Dwyane Wade, NBA, Miami Heat: @dwadeofficial "I'm honored and truly humbled to have been a teammate of the GREAT @SHAQ..this game will not be the same without him..respect"

Steve Nash, NBA, Phoenix Suns: @SteveNash "Congratulations @SHAQ on your quadruple platinum hall of fame career. I know you're not riding off into the sunset...what's next?"

Grant Hill, NBA, Phoenix Suns: @realgranthill33 (2 tweets) "Congrats to my former teammate, friend and neighbor @SHAQ on a Hall Of Fame career. 1 of the best ever. Also, 1 of the only rappers to" "to have a song with both JayZ and Biggie Smalls. #respecttweet"

Tracy McGrady, NBA, Detroit Pistons: @TheReal_TMAC "#salute to the big fella from LSU... dominant, charming, funny, and a true NBA legend.. i will miss shaquille o'neal... #retiring"

Andy Roddick, tennis player: @andyroddick "i will miss shaq.... he is the best quote in sports"

Paul Rabil, professional lacrosse player, Boston Cannons and Washington Stealth: @PaulRabil "This Shaq retirement conference is the most entertainment I've seen associated with the NBA since MJ was playing. #MadRespect #BigAARP"

Chad Ochocinco, NFL, Cincinnati Bengals: @ochocinco "#OCNN - All the best to my good friend @SHAQ. Truly one of the greatest of all time!!!"

Michael Strahan, former NFL player, New York Giants: @michaelstrahan "Congratulations to @SHAQ on retiring after 19 years in the game. Dominant force....."

Jozy Altidore, professional soccer player, Bursaspor (Turkey) & USA @JozyAltidore17 "@SHAQ u the man"

Giuseppe Rossi, profesonal soccer player, Villarreal (Spain) & Italy: @GiuseppeRossi22 "Who agrees with me that @SHAQ is one of the best all time? #dominance #power #champion"

John Cena, professionoal wrestler, WWE: @JohnCena "CeNation. Watching Shaq's retirement address. Class act. He has great personality and relationship with media. Truly one of the greatest."

Shaquille O'Neal Retires, Leaves Behind Larger Than Life Legacy

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

While the stats are impressive, it’s almost a shame they commanded so much attention during Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement press conference. Because Shaq was so much more than just the 28,596 points he scored, the 13,099 rebounds he grabbed, or the 2,732 shots he blocked.

Even the various MVP awards and, yes, the four NBA Championships he won are only a small part of the giant man’s career.

There were many other things that set Shaq apart from the rest of the players in the NBA.

The first thing that fans noticed about Shaq, the first thing that drew me to the sport of basketball, was of course his unique skill set. He was, in the first half of his career, a beautiful blend of power and finesse. Power dominates the equation, for sure, but Shaq Fu could run the court and was fairly athletic, especially for his immense size.

But really, who was able to stop Shaq? He would bowl over anybody in the post that tried to stop him. His size and strength made him a sheer force. It became so hard to stop him that teams began employing the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic, fouling him deliberately in the hope (and often times the likely outcome) that he would miss his free throws.

It wasn’t just his opponents O’Neal would go after with tenacity either; he attacked the basket with an unseen amount of power.

After Darryl Dawkins ripped the rim off the backboard a few too many times, the way the basket was built was changed. So Shaq he couldn’t take the rim down the court with him? No problem, he just took the entire basket down to the court.

Another O’Neal staple was his smile, one that stretched across his entire face and sparkled like something out of a toothpaste commercial. Shaq appreciated the opportunities he had thanks to basketball and he enjoyed every single one of them. While he came up with an incredible amount of nicknames for himself, another that would seem fitting for him is “The Big Kid”. He celebrated big plays with a memorable candor. He joked around with teammates and played pranks on them.

He also was cooperative and playful with the media. He was always good for a sound bite and really enjoyed the attention. Shaq even mentioned that one reason he wanted to have his press conference at his house was so he could host the media and feed them, thanking them for a 19-year relationship.

Most importantly though, Shaq was one of the most accessible players to the fans—the ones who helped make him as big a superstar as he was—and was one of the most charitable players in the league.

Shaq was one of the first athletes to really use Twitter to connect with his fans, offering contests to meet him and win tickets to games.

His charity efforts often get overlooked. He helped supply and distribute necessities to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He gets involved in countless charity events and his “Shaq-A-Claus” routine, delivering toys to less fortunate children on Christmas, is a huge hit.

O’Neal doesn’t isn’t charitable because it’s good for his image, he does it—often times without any fanfare—because, it seems, that he honestly thinks it’s the right thing to do. Fitting that such a large man would also have such a large heart.

Sure Shaq had his moody moments or questionable comments, but he was a true role model. He was never in trouble with the league or the law. He valued education and went back to school, finishing his undergrad degree, obtaining his Master’s and beginning the process of earning a PhD. He is a family man and, backed by his examples of charity and forays into law enforcement, always looks out for the good of others.

After 19 seasons in the NBA there are many fond memories of The Diesel. It’s hard to imagine someone that will capture the attention and entertain the fans as well as O’Neal did, and he will be terribly missed.

That being said, it’s also hard to believe that this will be the last we hear of him. Because once an entertainer, always an entertainer.

Clips from Shaq's retirement press conference. Video from ESPN.