Postcard from Europe: Onyewu, Twente smiling
DEN HAAG, Netherlands — It's not difficult to tell when Oguchi Onyewu is in a great mood. The big FC Twente defender freely smiles as wide as the Dutch sky, to which anyone standing in the mixed zone after Friday's smash 'n' grab victory at pesky ADO Den Haag could testify.
It wasn't just any nervy win; this one allowed Twente, the defending Eredivisie champs, to go top of the table, one point up on Ajax and three up on PSV with two games remaining.
A pair of consecutive draws, an unceremonious Europa League ouster and the real threat of dropping points to ADO conspired to make things tense for Twente, but the man known as "Guci" in the Low Countries had that broad smile on overdrive following Friday's last whistle.
“We needed this win,” Onyewu tells MLSsoccer after the match.
It wasn’t easy. Twente needed Luuk de Jong's 86th minute winner to get the three points. It was the eighth time Twente have hit a decisive goal in the last quarter hour of a match this season and the fourth in the final 10 minutes.
Onyewu, on loan from AC Milan, is no stranger to title expectations and nerve-wracking stretch runs. He took part in four tough championship duels while with Standard Liège, raising the Belgian trophy twice.
"It's the same as the majority of the situations with clubs I've played with," Onyewu says. "I encourage this situation. It's why we all play."
Part of the reason he opted to join Twente on loan was familiarity with Twente boss Michel Preud'homme, his manager when Standard snapped a 25-year title drought in 2008.
Yet the feeling of continuity only goes so far.
"Different team, different atmosphere," Onyewu said. "No two teams are the same in the locker room."
But some things are the same, in particular, the stresses and pressures of trying to repeat as champions. Twente edged out Ajax by one point for the title in 2010.
"It's tough," he says, "especially when you're at the top of the table. Every week, you're playing for the title and every team you're playing wants to knock you off the top. It's hard to get to the top, but it's even harder to stay there. That's what we're finding out right now."
Widely known as a physical center back, Onyewu is also receiving regular Dutch lessons on playing out of the back. Training includes a lot of ball work, which is a new thing for him. He says it is already having a positive effect.
"They like the central defenders to play to midfield, which is definitely not what the Italians do," he says, chuckling. "In the beginning, it was kind of odd—I defend before anything. [But] you get more comfortable with it. It's definitely helping me as a player."
Onyewu pauses and contemplates his next words. Then he adds, "I'll have to transition some of that when I go back to the national team."
Coming from a player known to explore new soccer territory, this comment could be a talking point to watch during what will be an important summer for Onyewu and the US national team.
"This Gold Cup is going to be huge for a number of reasons," he says. "It's a chance to get into the 2013 Confederations Cup, and also because we lost the last one in 2009.
Onyewu was with the US side that reached the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup, where they lost to Brazil 3-2. The Americans famously beat Spain in the semifinals, and they had a 2-0 lead in the final before conceding three goals to the Seleçao in the second half. Onyewu wants another chance to take on the world’s best.
"You get the champions of every [continent]," he says. "It's always good to play those kind of games."
But before the Gold Cup, there is the massive friendly against Spain at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on June 3.
"‘Friendly’ in quotations,” Onyewu says, smiling. “I think they will remember the result of our last game [at the 2009 Confederations Cup]."
Onyewu obviously enjoys discussing that win of the team that went on to win the World Cup the next summer. It was a watershed moment for the US team, he believes, and one that served notice to the world that the side could compete with the world’s powerhouses.
"We shocked everyone," he says. "I think we shocked ourselves."
In addition to the international matters, Onyewu will also be dealing with another club decision this summer. He has often stated that making it at San Siro is his first preference when the Twente loan is done, but he won't rule out a Tukkers return next season.
"I never like to close any doors," he says. "Obviously, I don't know a player in the world that wouldn't go back to Milan and play. But if that opportunity isn't there, we'll have to re-evaluate the whole situation."
Though Onyewu hasn't received any feedback from Milan on his Twente performance, he already considers his Dutch spell a success.
"I think a lot of people were skeptical if my knee was good enough to play," he stated. "I think this [loan] has put that to rest."
After hosting relegation bait Willem II this weekend, Twente will hit the road for a thrilling conclusion to their chase for a first-ever domestic double. They face Ajax in Rotterdam on May 8 for the KNVB Cup, then play them again a week later in Amsterdam in what is shaping up to be a direct title showdown.
The irony is not lost on Onyewu that he nearly joined Ajax as a free agent before Milan suddenly called.
"It is funny," Onyewu says, shrugging. "They were a prospect for me and by no means are they a small club. Now, they're in front of me and they should be. They're a good team. We will see who is the best after these two games."