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.

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