Onyewu is back for US team, but was he ever gone?

Oguchi Onyewu - October 11, 2011

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HARRISON, N.J. – “He’s back. That’s the easiest way to say it, and it’s awesome to see.”

Those were the words of US manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who started with the performance of Oguchi Onyewu when highlighting the positives of the 1-0 loss against Ecuador on Tuesday night at Red Bull Arena.

“He’s getting his rhythm, and his presence is amazing and really good to watch,” Klinsmann said in his postgame press conference.

But was Onyewu ever gone in the first place? He doesn’t think so.

“First of all, it was the reporters and you guys that esteemed I wasn’t back,” he told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “So you guys have to answer that question for yourselves. Not me.”

Many US national team fans had written him off after he failed to impress at the 2010 World Cup, and many questioned whether he’d ever be the same player following the October 2009 knee injury that kept him on the shelf until just before the US World Cup training camp. Friday marks two years since he ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee in a qualifier against Costa Rica.

And before Tuesday night, his performances in a US jersey since South Africa 2010 have been nothing to write home about and included a forgettable match against Spain in June. The fact that AC Milan did not rate him highly enough to give him a single league appearance and offloaded him to Portugal this summer only fed the popular belief.

He’s well aware of the perception that surrounded him before Tuesday night although he says he has never placed much stock in any of the talk.

“To be honest, I don’t really pay attention to people’s comments, A lot of people think I’m still terrible and a lot of people think I’m good,” he said. “People’s opinions vary throughout my career and I haven’t focused too much on the positives or negatives and moreso on how I feel and more importantly on how my coach feels at the time.”

Even though Onyewu warns “don’t try and hype the performance more than it was,” there is no denying that there were several classic Onyewu moments in the match against Ecuador. He flashed the “Jared Borgetti glare” on a handful of occasions and the intimidation he emanated was apparent – perhaps a sign of the newfound confidence that comes with being a regular again for his club team, Sporting Clube de Portugal.

“I think everybody is excited that things in Portugal are going well for him,” veteran midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We need as many guys as possible fit and sharp and playing regularly for their clubs and he’s one of those guys right now and that’s a great thing.”

Added US goalkeeper Tim Howard, “He was strong and he was winning his headers, but his timing was fantastic for a big guy. I was happy with the way he pushed up and dropped his line, he really dictated the line. His anticipation tonight was fantastic, there were a few times that he dropped, the ball got played into the forward and he intercepted. He was really good.”

Onyewu went the full 90 in his first start in a US jersey since June – he did not appear in a single one of the six 2011 Gold Cup matches. He came in to replace Michael Orozco Fiscal, who started the match against Honduras. But Orozco Fiscal’s poor performance didn’t even allow him to get on the USA’s 18-man squad against Ecuador.

Given the struggles of the Americans' defensive corps in recent matches – Tim Ream cost the US the match against Ecuador with a defensive lapse – the return of one of the USMNT’s immovable parts just years ago will prove a boost for Klinsmann’s squad. And it can be seen through the comments of the players.  

“I thought he came in and did a good job in the Honduras game, and I thought he played well tonight,” Clint Dempsey said. “It’s good to see him bouncing back from such a tough injury. It showed he has a tough character mentally to keep fighting back and putting in good performances like he’s done.”

“I think we have a lot of things that we can build off from these last two games and move on for the future,” Onyewu said of the matches against Honduras and Ecuador.

And that counts for Gooch, too.