AMSTERDAM — Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon have captured AC Milan defender Oguchi Onyewu. It’s a much-needed change of scenery for the big US center back.
But whether Lisbon will be a happy landing spot remains to be seen. Several factors related to his move appear to be in his favor, while others seem to sound small warning bells. Here are the three big questions facing the big defender:
1) Will he get playing time?
Gooch has lacked regular games since injuring his knee on US duty shortly after his move to Milan in 2009.
He was never really given a chance to succeed at San Siro, and he never really had an extended look at center back while on loan with FC Twente this past spring.
With Sporting, he should get every opportunity to cement a starting role in the middle of defense. New boss Domingos Paciência has inherited a team that often played soft and foolish at the back last season. The Lions leaked two or more goals on 11 occasions, and on eight occasions gave up goals after the 79th minute that either led to a draw or a loss.
What's more, in five tilts with main rivals Benfica and FC Porto in league and cup play, Sporting lost four and drew the fifth, being outscored 10-4.
But Paciência is ringing in the changes. He has already brought in six new players, and we haven’t even hit July yet.
Onyewu is joined by fellow new signing Alberto Rodríguez, a Peruvian international recruited from Braga. Rodríguez is smaller and more nimble than Onyewu, so the two could end up a fine pairing. And they would have decent complements on the back line in youngster Daniel Carriço, last season’s captain, and 32-year-old stalwart Ânderson Polga.
Considering the side’s soft play up the gut last season and no other center back taller than six feet on the roster, Onyewu would need to be very poor indeed in training to not get his fair share of looks on the field.
2) How will Gooch fit in Portugal?
This is the big one, as there are competing factors that invite some legitimate questions about his ability to thrive at Sporting.
On the plus side, the Primeira Liga has precious few attackers that can even approach Onyewu's strength, and the heavy Portuguese emphasis on true wing play means he should have no shortage of crosses to cut out in the air.
But the league is also a mix of speed, slickness and tactics. Sporting’s opponents will pose plenty of tricky questions for a back line seeking stability. It's also a land where weak clearances or free space on offer are often punished, golazo-style.
3) How will Sporting do?
Sporting are one of the heavyweights of Portuguese soccer, 18-time winners of the domestic championship. But they are mired in a maddening silverware drought. Their last league title came in 2002, and all they have to their name since then are two cup triumphs.
Last season, Sporting finished third, out of a Champions League place for the second straight year. (Their placement did get them into the less-prestigious Europa League.) They ended up with 36 fewer points and 32 fewer goals scored than champs Porto, meaning their attack was even more suspect than the defense.
The additions of Peruvian prodigy André Carrillo and nimble, big striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel should help ease pressure on the defense, and it certainly wouldn't hurt if winger Marat Izmailov's long-awaited return to fitness is matched by his form.
But all in all, it will be difficult for Sporting to meet Onyewu's stated goal of winning the league this year — even with Porto shedding a manager and stars. If Gooch expects the Lions to contend, he will need to enjoy his best season since repeating as Belgian kings at Standard Liège in 2008 and '09.
A great deal remains to be seen.