Onyewu emerging star for U.S.
What people will remember about Thursday's Gold Cup semifinal between the U.S. national team and Honduras is the comeback. Two goals in the match's final seven minutes gave the Americans the victory and a berth in Sunday's final against Panama. The match should be remembered as the coming-out party for the next great American defender.
Oguchi Onyewu is big. Not stocky-defender big, more like linebacker big. His imposing figure and stoic scowl are intimidating enough to make you forget that he is just 23 years old. He even has the nickname to go with the look. Just call him "Gooch," like the bully from the '80s television show Diff'rent Strokes.
Never has the U.S. national team program boasted a defender with his combination of size, attitude and ability and not since Eddie Pope emerged in the mid-'90s has there been a young American defender with so much promise.
"Whenever you can really have a young, dominating center back in the center of your defense, you've got the capabilities to go a long way," said U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller of Onyewu. "Obviously, he's got the physical attributes. He's got the pace, he's got tremendous size and strength and he's decent with his feet and is only going to get better.
"He's in Europe in a great place where he's playing every week," Keller said. "I really think in the next year or two, he has a good chance of going to a big club."
Overshadowed for much of his youth national team career by the exploits of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, Onyewu went about building his pro career quietly in Europe, first with French club FC Metz and eventually in Belgium. After a move to Belgian power Standard Liege last year, Onyewu blossomed, becoming a full-time starter on a team that played in last year's UEFA Cup.
The experience he gained in Belgium put him on the fast track to the national team roster. There was no better evidence of how high his stock had risen than when U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena entrusted Onyewu to start against Mexico in the team's 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss in Mexico City.
Onyewu struggled on that day, but showed some poise and no fear for the magnitude of playing in front of more than 100,000 Mexican fans despite it being just his second national team appearance. Onyewu erased any concerns about nervousness when he delivered a crunching tackle on fiery Mexican forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who had little to say to the 6-foot-4 Onyewu, choosing instead to berate the match official about the tackle.
"I think that game was, not in a sense overwhelming, but a big game in terms of my professional career, to be put in that environment and start in that kind of game," Onyewu said of his experience vs. Mexico. "Unfortunately, we didn't come out with a win but I think I took a lot out of that game in terms of professionalism and growing as a player and a person.
"If you can play in that arena, in front of that crowd and that atmosphere, I think you shouldn't have problems playing anywhere else."
Onyewu had few problems on Thursday against Honduras, even after Pope left the game with an injury that forced Arena to slide Onyewu over from left back into the central defender role in a three-man defense. Onyewu handled the defensive responsibilities with aplomb and provided an offensive threat when he pressed forward as Honduras began playing a more defensive game. After having missed a clear header earlier in the match, Onyewu converted his next chance, burying a Donovan pass past Honduras goalkeeper Junior Morales to stun the pro-Honduras crowd at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
"These are important games for Gooch," Arena said. "We need to get him in the mix because he's going to be an important part of qualifying.
"Every time we've given him these opportunities, he's taken advantage of them. He's played quite well. It's taken him a little time to get a feel for how we want to play in the back and I think he's picked it up pretty well and now he is getting pretty consistent. I think he has confidence now with us and I think his teammates have a lot of confidence in him."
Once known only to the most die-hard of American soccer fans, Onyewu is fast becoming one of the national team's brightest stars, serving as the defensive alternative to injured star striker Eddie Johnson, Donovan and Beasley. With long-time defenders Pope, Hejduk and Gregg Berhalter getting older, Onyewu has joined Carlos Bocanegra and Cory Gibbs in the next generation of defensive standouts. It is no longer a question of whether Onyewu will be on the U.S. World Cup team in Germany. He will be there, ready to be the type of defensive force never before seen in stars and stripes.
Even though Bruce Arena removed any blame for his ejection from Thursday's semifinal from Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast, Arena couldn't explain away Prendergast's ghastly performance. The oft-criticized officials looked lost at times and whistled non-fouls while allowing some red card-worthy tackles to go unpunished. Asthor Henriquez managed to deliver game-ending tackles on Eddie Pope and Pablo Mastroeni without seeing a single card.
Two questions seemed to scream out during Prendergast's awful performance on Thursday. Why does CONCACAF keep assigning him to games and how hasn't MLS already signed Prendergast to a contract?
What did we learn from last week's results? Never pick Chivas USA against the Galaxy, not when Antonio Cue stands to lose another embarrassing bet anyway. For those who haven't heard, Cue's lost bet this time around required him to dress up as a waiter and serve members of the Galaxy front office. Good thing for Cue Chivas and the Galaxy only play four times a year.
Who do we like this week? After getting burned by picking Chivas and the Crew last week, I'm sticking with the favorites:
Revolution at Chivas USA
The Revs have Bruce Arena to thank for their comeback victory against FC Dallas last week. Arena released Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston for the match and both players assisted on Taylor Twellman goals. New England won't have Noonan or Ralston for this match but they won't be needed against Chivas. Could Twellman bag a second straight hat trick? Don't rule it out.
Revolution 3, Chivas USA 1
D.C. United at Los Angeles Galaxy
The first meeting between these traditional powers should offer some fireworks. The Galaxy is fresh off its friendly against Real Madrid and that test should have them ready to defend their stellar home record against a United team three days removed from drawing Kansas City. Can anybody stop Herculez Gomez? He has discovered his shot and goalkeepers everywhere should be warned. The Galaxy will send D.C. back home with zero points.
Galaxy 2, D.C. United 1
Kansas City Wizards at Columbus Crew
Credit Robert Warzycha on his team's gutsy victory against the Metros at mid-week. Coaching in just his second match, Warzycha was not afraid to make substitutions and chase the victory. He was rewarded nicely by reserve team star Jamal Sutton. The Crew will find it much tougher against Kansas City, which needs three points here to keep the MetroStars and D.C. behind them in the East. Scott Sealy continues his charge for rookie of the year votes with another goal as the Wizards take the Lamar Hunt Derby.
Wizards 2, Crew 1
Chicago Fire at Colorado Rapids
The Fire has to be eager to erase the memories of last week's disappointing tie against the Crew and find a ripe victim in Colorado. The Rapids have yet to establish anything more than long kicks to the dangerous Jeff Cunningham, that is an attacking style that won't work against a Chicago team that will welcome back Samuel Caballero and Ivan Guerrero from Honduran national team duty. Look for Thiago to run circles around the Colorado midfield and for Nate Jaqua to add to his goal total.
Fire 2, Rapids 0
FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake
Poor Real Salt Lake. The expansion team would have been an underdog against the West leaders anyway, but now that Dallas is steaming from its 3-2 loss against New England, this match could get ugly. What went wrong with Dallas against the Revolution? The Revs simply exposed the fact that the Hoops' defense can't handle strong attacks. Lucky for Dallas, Real Salt Lake would never be accused of being a dangerous attacking team.
Carlos Ruiz and Ronnie O'Brien will have a field day at Rice-Eccles.
FC Dallas 3, Real Salt Lake 1.
MetroStars at San Jose Earthquakes
How much do the Metros miss Amado Guevara? With Guevara, the Metros destroyed the Crew's mediocre midfield on two occasions. Without him, Columbus was able to dominate possession and wear out the Metros defense until they finally cracked late in Wendesday's 1-0 victory. Without Guevara and Youri Djorkaeff, and with Eddie Gaven still struggling badly since returning from the Youth World Championships, the Metros aren't beating anybody. San Jose has been solid lately (save for the 3-0 drubbing by Chicago) and will be pumped to play its first home game in nearly a month.
Earthquakes 2, MetroStars 0
Last week's record: 1-5
Overall record: 41-37
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com