Young defender big part of future

Oguchi Onyewu's play in the Gold Cup has been an audition for the U.S. World Cup qualifying team.

By wire services
Published July 24, 2005

NEW YORK - Oguchi Onyewu's first big start for the U.S national team was one to remember: at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium in a World Cup qualifier before 110,000 fans.

"If you can play that arena, in that crowd and in that atmosphere, I think you shouldn't have problems playing anywhere else," he said.

The 6-foot-2 defender whose first name means "God fights for me" figures to start today against Panama at Giants Stadium in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the championship of soccer's North and Central American and Caribbean region.

He made his debut with the national team last October as a late substitute against Panama in a 6-0 World Cup qualifying win and put the United States in the Gold Cup final with an injury-time goal on a diving header against Honduras on Thursday. It was just his eighth appearance with the national team and his first goal.

"These are important games for Gooch," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "We need to get him in the mix because he's going to be an important part of qualifying."

Arena is suspended for today's game because he was ejected Thursday, and the U.S. team will be led on the bench by assistant coach Glenn Myernick.

Onyewu, 23, has played his way up through the U.S. program. His parents, who are from Nigeria, came to the United States for college at Howard University and he grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, where he was noticed by John Ellinger, a U.S. Soccer Federation who went on to coach the under-17 team. Onyewu played two years at Clemson, then signed with the French club Metz and moved on to Standard Liege in Belgium, where he plays in central defense and is about to start his third season.

As fast as he's progressing, he could become a regular starter by next year's World Cup.

"With soccer today, people are getting a lot better a lot younger," Onyewu said. "These games with the Gold Cup right now are a good opportunity to showcase that you have the ability to compete with the national team for a position for World Cup qualifying."

Eddie Pope, a player Onyewu admired growing up, probably will miss the final after spraining his left ankle against Honduras. Pope, 31, has frequently been slowed by injuries, one of the reasons Arena has had to expand his pool of defenders.

Onyewu has needed time to adjust to the speed of play with the national team, which is far faster than at the club level.