Eight years since Confed Cup heroics, Oguchi Onyewu is still going strong
Eight years ago this summer, the United States men's national team stunned top-ranked (and eventual World Cup champion Spain) en route to the Confederations Cup final. To USMNT fans of a certain vintage, it's hard to fathom it was that long ago. Memories are vivid: the 3-0 rout of Egypt in the group stage finale to clinch an unlikely berth in the knockout rounds; the upset of an all-time great Spanish team that was unbeaten in 35 games beforehand; Landon Donovan staking the U.S. to an ultimately fleeting 2-0 lead against Brazil in the title game.
To Oguchi Onyewu, the events of that fateful June in South Africa might as well have taken place a lifetime ago.
"It does feel that long ago to me," Onyewu said with a wry chuckle. "It feels a while back, when you look at things. But the memories feel like yesterday." Within four months of the end of that tournament, Onyewu had both finalized a dream move to famed Italian club AC Milan and been laid low by the injury that would forever alter his career path.
For many, more casual observers, he remains frozen in 2009, a living memory: to them, he's still the dominant enforcer he was at that Confederations Cup, the player he could have been at Milan if ill fortune hadn't struck. In actuality, even at 35 and years after many wrote him off for good, Onyewu is still out there, towering over and glowering at opposing forwards.
It would be premature to call his burgeoning tenure with Philadelphia a "revival," but he's become a leaned-upon pillar of the Union defense. He's unlikely to ever again don the red, white and blue, but there is nobility in the way he's been able to stave off the end many assumed he was approaching the moment he hit the ground clutching his knee.
"I don't know that it's a sense of pride, but I know that some of the injuries I've sustained -- and there have been multiple -- that some people might not have come back from that," Onyewu told ESPN FC in a phone interview. "That's a testament to my resilience and my stubbornness, to some extent."
Closing in on his final chapter, the hulking center back finds himself in similar territory to where it all began, forced to prove his worth once more.
"Instead of congratulating me for what I've been able to overcome, I've been met with a lot of adversity," Onyewu said. "But for me, it's another opportunity to prove people wrong.... For me, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel, if only you'll push yourself toward it."
He's never been reticent to test his boundaries, either. A native of Washington, D.C., the son of Nigerian immigrants -- "they definitely instilled in us that if you want something, you have to work for it," Onyewu says -- his career began conventionally enough. Onyewu earned a spot in U.S. soccer residency program in Bradenton, Florida, and represented the USMNT at the U-17 and U-20 levels. After his sophomore season at Clemson, he took his first real leap of faith, leaving school to join a second-division club in France.
The risk paid off. Onyewu earned his first USMNT cap under coach Bruce Arena in 2004, quickly establishing himself as a mainstay. He started all three games for the United States at the 2006 World Cup and his stock only rose from there.
After a half-decade of standout performances for Standard Liege in Belgium, and just weeks after that dramatic Confederations Cup run, Milan came calling. He made his debut for the Rossoneri that fall in the UEFA Champions League at the San Siro, but then he got hurt, rupturing his patellar tendon in a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.
"It was a few months after the transfer of my career," Onyewu said. "It wasn't a broken ankle or anything like that. It was an injury that, for some people, it ended their career. I was distraught when it happened, but I was determined to make my way back to the form I was at before."
Does he feel like he ever made it all the way back?
"Physically, I felt that I was able to do so," Onyewu said. "Maybe there was the perception that I wasn't able to. There was a reputation that I was injury-prone. It wasn't the case. It was only that big one. It was an uphill battle to prove people wrong. That hasn't changed, even today. People are like, 'Can you still run?' Of course I can still run.
"It's not like the story stopped with Milan. It's the biggest club I played for, but I was able to keep it going from there."
Seven years on, he's right, of course, and there have been high points since. Onyewu was part of the Malaga team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2013 Champions League, a group that would've reached the semis if not for a pair of Borussia Dortmund stoppage-time goals.
There have been plenty of trying moments, too, when he easily could've called it quits. He bounced around the continent, from Sporting Lisbon to Queens Park Rangers to Sheffield Wednesday to Charlton Athletic, finding inconsistent opportunities. Onyewu was on trial with New York City FC in May of 2015, but a day before he was set to sign, he sustained an Achilles injury.
"It was just bad luck," Onyewu said. "You couldn't have written that story."
Still, he kept at it. Prospective deals with a number of other MLS clubs presented themselves but fell through. Eventually, Philadelphia reached out, offering one last chance.
There is serendipity in the fact that he has somehow ended up in the same locker room as Charlie Davies, another veteran of the 2009 Confederations Cup team and another player who knows adversity all too well. Later that same year, the forward was seriously injured in a car crash that similarly shifted his own trajectory. Last year, Davies' twin sons were born three months premature but survived.
"Charlie is like my brother," Onyewu said. "In the way I've described myself and my story, you can multiply that three times when it comes to Charlie. He is a strong person and a strong man. He's overcome so much and he does it with a smile. Sometimes, I don't know how he does it."
To a lesser extent, to be sure, the same question could be asked of Onyewu. To be given a glimpse of the game's highest levels only to have opportunities limited by the cruelty of an untimely injury is a tough pill to swallow. Yet he continues on, pulling on the jersey of a mostly forgettable Eastern Conference team, but finding joy in still being able to play at all. Asked what he hopes American soccer fans remember about him when he finally calls time, he pauses while considering his answer.
"For me, I hope they'll remember me as a presence," Onyewu said. "I hope they'll remember my determination and my resilience. I may be down but I've never been counted out. I've made a career out of making non-believers believers.
"There's a lot that I had to overcome. All of those things, negative and positive, have made me who I am. I'm thankful for all of them."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.