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May 28, 2006

Onyewu arrives on the international stage

HAMBURG, Germany -- Soccer has never been a big man's game. In fact, one of the appeals of the sport is that no matter how small you are you can own the game if your feet can work magic and your mind can imagine the brilliant. Times are changing, at least to some degree. As players grow in size, and more attacking players become super-sized, it is becoming increasingly imperative for teams to have the type of defensive players that can not only contend with the skill of attacking players, but also their growing size. For the first time in U.S. national team history, it has a player who can match up with the giants of the game, and he has shown up at just the right time. By soccer standards, Oguchi Onyewu is a monster. He is 6-foot-4 inches of fast-twitch muscle fiber honed in the weight room combined with soccer skill sharpened in Europe. He has shown up just as the U.S. national team is set to face some of the game's most imposing goal scorers. Jan Koller (6-foot-8) and Luca Toni (6-foot-5) combine technical superiority with impressive size that makes them tower over defenders on most occasions, and in the case of Koller, all occasions. It is the development of players such as these that has made the arrival of Onyewu so crucial to the U.S. team's hopes. Eddie Pope had long been considered to have good size, but he is average-sized by today's international soccer standings. Pope has maintained his elite national team form by combining that size with superior athletic ability and a mental approach to the game that has helped him maintain his high standard even as his physical skills diminish. For all that Pope and past U.S. defenders such as Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas have given to the U.S. team, there has never been a defender in the program who has been as advanced at such a young age, nevermind the never-before-seen physical qualities he possesses. Onyewu finds himself on the upward slope of his career, matching his impressive physical traits with an ever-improving understanding of the game. "The most important thing you see with Gooch is mentally he's gotten better," said Landon Donovan, Onyewu's teammate going back to their days on the U-17 national team. "He was always talented. He was always good in the air. He was always athletic and just a specimen, and you were waiting to see him turn the corner and become a real soccer player. "He's learned a lot and you know it's hard being a 24-year-old defender playing against some of these qualifying teams we're playing against, and some good forwards around the world," said Donovan. "He makes it look like he's been around for a while." The fact is, Onyewu hasn't been around the national team that long at all. It is easy to forget his rather anonymous national team debut in the United States' World Cup qualifying victory against Panama in 2004. He took his lumps early on, earning two yellows in his first national team start and suffering through the team's 2-1 loss to Mexico in Azteca Stadium, a match where Onyewu was at fault for the game's first goal. As Bruce Arena was quick to point out, Onyewu struggled through those games but gained invaluable experience that helped speed up his learning curve. The growth was never more evident than in his second crack at the Mexicans. Onyewu completely shut down Mexican star striker Jared Borgetti, the same player who beat him for the goal in Mexico City, and he instantly gained star status among American fans overjoyed at finally having a player with the potential to be a dominating center back. Not bad for a player who was sitting around at Clemson University watching the last World Cup. Four years ago, Onyewu was just about to leave Clemson to join French club FC Metz when he watched former youth national teammates Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley star in South Korea. He thought to himself, "Why not me? If I work at it I can be there the next time around." It was just a year before that fateful summer when Onyewu began taking the steps to go from 'big for a soccer player' to 'freakish for a soccer player, big for any sport'. He began lifting weights and saw instant results. "I just wanted to fill out," said Onyewu about his decision to start lifting weights even though, as Donovan explained it, Onyewu was already a 'big boy'. "My older brother was real big and I just wanted to be an imposing player on the field and try and use my height." "After my first year of college I definitely starting seeing some results," said Onyewu. "I probably put on 15 to 20 pounds after the first year of college." The lifting stopped when he got to Europe as coaches from FC Metz let him know that he was big enough. It was already too late. The seeds were planted for the eventual evolution of a beast of a player who is a few days away from having the game's biggest stage to show the world how much he has grown as a player. MLS Game Previews You know things are bad when fans are writing you to beg you not to pick their teams to win. That is what it's come to thanks to my selections being so downright awful. I must confess. I have even used my powers for evil, selecting teams to win that I wanted to see fall short. The days of defeats may be over though, as a 4-2 record last week helped stop my losing ways (5-2 when you count me picking Chivas USA to beat Los Angeles in mid-week. Would anyone alive not have picked Chivas USA in that game?). I may be in Germany but satellite wireless internet is a wonderful thing. You can book it now. I'll push my record to above .500 before the World Cup ends. It is either that or ESPN.com is going to hire Alexi 'The Grim Reaper' Lalas to oversee my pick process, and you know what that means. Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids I'm sorry you Real Salt Lake fans but I am picking your team to win from here on out. Just kidding. You get the nod this week because the Rapids are just not that good. Actually, there are just three truly good teams in MLS (D.C. United, FC Dallas and Houston). The rest of the league falls under the mediocre category and RSL is probably second to Chivas USA in that department. Here's another win for Real Salt Lake so we can read a few more cushy stories about their 'amazing' turnaround. Real Salt Lake 2, Rapids 0 Houston Dynamo at Red Bulls Houston is playing some of the best soccer in the league while the Red Bulls continue their struggles to find a second victory. Sounds like a simple game to pick right? Wrong. This is a typical MLS letdown game, where a favorite comes up against a team it should beat and proceeds to lay an egg. The Red Bulls had better capitalize because they need another tie like Don Garber needs a Christmas Club account. Red Bulls 2, Dynamo 1 Kansas City Wizards at Columbus Crew Sigi Schmid must be loving his life these days. His Crew knocks off the league's hottest team (FC Dallas) and just two days later Steve Sampson is fired. Talk about prayers being answered. Combine that good fortune with playing a Wizards squad that hasn't scored double-digit goals since April 8th and you have the makings of a Crew victory. Crew 1, Wizards 0 Chivas USA at FC Dallas The game of the week features a Chivas squad that is beginning to heat up, against an FC Dallas squad fresh off a shock loss to Columbus. There is little question that Chivas can attack and put chances together, but when faced with an opponent with a dangerous attack, the Goats don't stand up as well. As for FC Dallas, the Hoops are as talented as they come but their midfield can be controlled if you have the right players. Chivas USA has the possession game to frustrate FC Dallas. Expect an exciting match, but not a winner. Chivas USA 2, FC Dallas 2 New England Revolution at Chicago Fire What do you get when you have a home team opening its new stadium versus a team on a three-match winless streak? You have a home win. That's just how it goes in MLS. Chicago 2, New England 1 D.C. United at Los Angeles Galaxy Frank Yallop is a great coach but you can't make chicken salad out of, well, you know. The league's worst team against the league's best team has the look of one of those MLS shock games, but don't bet on it. D.C. United's midfield is just too much, as Yallop begins to wonder why he didn't wait for the Toronto FC job. D.C. United 2, Galaxy 0 Last week: 5-2 Overall: 19-27

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.