Feature / Players to watch

Player to watch: Oguchi Onyewu

Editor’s note: To read each post in the Player to Watch series, click here.

It’s difficult to miss a 6’4″, towering center back on a soccer pitch. And yet, for 45 minutes of Philadelphia Union’s inaugural training session on January 24th, a bevy of reporters and onlookers did just that. Somehow, one of the United States’ most recognizable soccer players of all time glided anonymously around the soccer pitch unnoticed. Once he was spotted and “outed” on Twitter though, Union fans let out a collective <hand-stroking-chin emoji>.

Why to watch

Onyewu’s international pedigree is hard to match in American soccer circles. He’s played in six top flight leagues in Europe, another two second divisions there, and has two World Cups and 69 caps to his name. For a moment, he was as famous as any American soccer player, Landon Donovan included. He also may have assaulted Zlatan Ibrahimovic during training at AC Milan, which is both felonious and treasonous in most UN countries, and something only he and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” have ever done while living to tell the tale. I’m serious, Google it … except that you can’t, because Zlatan deleted the search results. Only Zlatan Googles the Zlatan.

For all of his career achievements, though, Onyewu has played only 23 matches in the last five calendar years and none in the last two. He fell off the American soccer radar after several successive injuries and an underwhelming showing at the 2010 World Cup where he was subbed off in the second match and didn’t play again. Meanwhile, center backs like North American stars Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, and even relative unknown John Brooks, stepped in and made him seem like an anachronistic vestige of the U.S. Men’s National Team.

And yet there he was on the Union training field, his familiar and sternly stoic face framed by an even more familiar white Union knit cap.

Why to watch: Historical context

The Union have a track record of attempting to shore up their defense with veteran acquisitions in the off-season. What follows is a list of players who have been brought in to be starters on opening day.

  • Danny Califf was one of the team’s first acquisitions, both defensively and overall, and its original captain. He is a Union legend and once clotheslined a Toronto FC player about to pass him on a breakaway.
  • Carlos Valdes was brought in the following season, and then again a few seasons later, with mixed results. Carlos wandered as much on the field as off of it, though he was a valuable centerpiece in the 2011 playoff squad.
  • Maurice Edu made his debut with the squad in 2014, and though he was not brought here to play center back, he’s made his most significant contributions there.
  • Steven Vitoria and Anderson Conceição round out this amended list, and each was brought here to raise the level of the back line, only to be discovered to not be ready for regular MLS duty.

The Union conceded 1.45 goals per game last season. Though they finished in the playoffs, they only kept six clean sheets all year and did not win any of their final seven matches. Despite spending draft picks on three defensive starters in the last two years, depth remained an issue for the squad, and thus defensive reinforcements were again on the team’s off-season shopping list.

Best case scenario

Onyewu was likely brought here to platoon at center back and provide a physical option that neither Josh Yaro nor Ken Tribbett offered last season. When signed, the best case scenario for him may have meant 10 or so starts, likely spelling Yaro when match-ups dictated, and an off-the-field presence for team chemistry and mentorship.

With Yaro’s unexpected injury, Onyewu is the clear-cut starter. Unlike Vitoria and Conceição before him, though, Gooch must perform. If not, Ken Tribbet has started for the Union and will do it again. Perhaps the greater onus is on head coach Jim Curtin to manage the roster around these new defensive limitations. The best case scenario now is that the team leverage Onyewu’s size and experience, ensuring that he is protected by a mindfully defensive midfield. When he is isolated, like in the first half of the team’s 3-2 preseason loss to D.C. United, his weaknesses are exposed and the likelihood of the Union’s success wanes.

Worst case scenario

Danny Califf, Conor Casey, Brian Carroll, and Freddy Adu all have Union ties and a unique narrative within the franchise: Only Carroll still plies his trade, and his age is a recurring question mark. The others are retired or effectively so. For some worrisome context, each of these players, along with Onyewu, featured on U.S. Men’s National Teams that spent 2008 and 2009 qualifying for the World Cup and competing in the Gold Cup. None has featured prominently since.

The worst case scenario is that Gooch ends up being big, old, and slow, despite his experience. Were that to happen, Ken Tribbet would end up being the stopgap between Josh Yaro injuries, just like in 2016. Tribbett is a year older and wiser, and perhaps results would improve, but many Union fans doubt that.  Moreover, Onyewu might be found outside the 18 for long stretches of the season, until he disappeared again, slipping silently out of the American soccer conscience, perhaps for good.

Outlook

So far in the preseason, Onyewu’s performance has been a mixed bag. He’s put in some good shifts and been exposed in certain moments. As a squad, however, the reviews are more or less the same. He’s a new player on a new team in a league in which he’s never played. Three matches does not a sample size make. On last week’s KYW Philly Soccer Show podcast, Onyewu downplayed his age as a factor for fitness and let listeners know that he came here to start, other narratives be darned.

Vancouver is far away. You can fly directly to Bogota, Colombia in the same amount of time it takes to fly to Vancouver. That, plus the artificial turf at BC Place, will give plenty of Union fans a reasonable scapegoat if the team doesn’t perform. When MLS Cup finalists, Toronto FC, come to Chester for the team’s home opener, the list of potential scapegoats will grow. The heat of Orlando makes people who are 34 years old (i.e. me), slow and lethargic… #scapegoat.

There are plenty of question marks on this squad heading into the season. Onyewu’s job should be to make sure that his position isn’t one of them, as quickly as possible.

10 Comments

  1. Can the Philadelphia Union play a high defensive line, giving lots of green space behind it in front of Andre Blake with Oguchi Onyewu as a starting center back.
    &
    We will accumulate our first evidence from Vancouver as they have been, customarily, a bunker and counter team with elite speed in the attack. Mattocks is gone, but Hurtado and Manneh are both on their roster. If Manneh plays attacking center mid, Haris Medunjanin needs to lubricate his roller skates, to track the runs into the box.
    &
    Our home opener will be even more interesting. Sebastian Giovinco.
    &
    We are going to learn a lot quickly.

    • I think a high defensive line can very easily expose the Onyewu I saw on Saturday against DC. This team had a hard time defending the counter all last season, especially without Yaro. This team is going to need to attack cautiously or it’s going to give up truckloads of goals.

  2. Expectations for his performance need to be realistic. We are looking at a 34-year-old with a history of injuries, and who was never the fastest guy on the field.
    We should expect a steady guy who will get beat from time to time. Hopefully Marquez, Keegan, et al will also have this mindset and be prepared to cover or close down quickly on his man.
    .
    He’s a space holder right now until Yaro gets back. Don’t expect the World Cup Hero – expect the aging veteran who was unexpectedly pressed into service.
    .
    And hope for the best…

    • My biggest hope is that he will not allow our backline to drop so deep so fast basically holding other teams onside. If this happens we will be ok. Blake will be able to come out and clear balls over the top if they are not perfect if our backline holds their shape. And the few times we get beat on perfect passes so be it.

      • My hope was that Gooch could teach the youngins to hold that defensive line, not really being the one to actually do it. I fear it’s like what Pete said above. A high defensive line would seem to expose Gooch. There were a few times in the match against D.C. where Gooch was already dropping well past Marquez, which meant he wasn’t holding that line.

      • Yeah, you are most likely right. I’m holding on to my hope for now though, it’s all I got!

  3. Side note…the fact that Zlatan can take up as much of this narrative as he did shows what kind of impact he will have when he comes over here in 2018. Stick him on LAFC with Chicharito and that team will drown out all others in star power.

  4. Gooch was never a burner and clearly has lost a step from that. Still, he is shaking off loads of rust. Hopefully with more minutes and conditioning his knowledge and vision will allow him to adjust better to his current pace (or lack therof) and allow him to position himself better to avoid getting burnt.

  5. “When MLS Cup champions, Toronto FC, come to Chester….”

    Toronto won MLS Cup last season? Can’t wait to see that arrogant self-centered attitude get shattered when Seattle fans find this out.

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