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May 5, 2008

Onyewu rebounds from his off year in England

For soccer players plying their trade in Europe, it's hard to beat competing in the Champions League. Oguchi Onyewu wouldn't mind missing out next season.

A regular in the center of defense with the U.S. national team, Onyewu was instrumental in helping Standard Liege claim its first Belgian league title in 25 years last month to earn a spot in Champions League qualifying.

He's got bigger fish to fry, though. He's more motivated than ever after an unsuccessful loan spell at Newcastle United, one of the Premier League's most supported clubs, early in 2007. According to his agent, Lyle Yorks, top-division teams in England, Spain, Germany and Italy -- the cream of the European crop -- are interested.

"I have ambitions to play in a league much stronger than the Belgian league," Onyewu, a native of Washington, D.C., said. "If that manifests itself at the end of the season and all the right things are put in place, then great. If it doesn't seem like the right situation or right timing, I guess I'll have to wait."

Newcastle didn't turn out to be the right situation, and Onyewu, nicknamed "Gooch," was hesitant to discuss his time in northeast England at first. He quickly relented.

Brought in by Glenn Roeder, Onyewu, blessed with a muscular 6-foot-4 frame most central defenders would love to have, made seven starts. During that span, the Magpies conceded eight goals and even blanked free-flowing Arsenal.

Compare that ratio to this campaign, in which Newcastle has allowed almost two goals a game and used a flurry of unsuccessful defensive partnerships. (Czech international David Rozehnal, signed in the offseason after earning rave reviews at Paris Saint-Germain, couldn't cut it and was loaned to Lazio in the January transfer window.)

Still, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Onyewu. The pace of Premier League games is unmatched, and he struggled to adapt in his three months.

"The English league, you definitely need time to adjust to it," Onyewu said, citing Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez, who languished for most of his first season at West Ham. "I literally had two months to prove myself. I'm not saying I'm not capable, but it's a very small window to do so."

Any chance of staying put pretty much ended when Roeder resigned in May and was eventually replaced by former Bolton boss Sam Allardyce.

With new coaches come new ideas, and Onyewu returned to Liege, a small city near the Dutch and German borders.

"I couldn't believe it didn't quite happen for him," said U.S. international keeper Marcus Hahnemann, the longtime No. 1 at Reading. "I was hoping he would come to us. He's big, he's good in the air, he's strong, and he's really comfortable on the ball. The whole game in England is dominated by winning headers, whereas in some of the other countries it's not so much of a factor, and that's why I think he'd be perfect."

Onyewu was downbeat and felt he had to prove himself all over again -- to his international and club teammates, as well as the fans.

"Players go through ups and downs in their careers, and for me, 2007 was definitely one of my down years," Onyewu said. "I'll probably call it a black year. But I feel like I've gained this last year five years of experience under my belt. I'm a much stronger player than I was."

Onyewu has been a mainstay at Standard, and the youngish team went unbeaten in 31 straight games to clinch the title before losing to local rivals Charleroi 2-1 last weekend. Not surprisingly, given Standard's defensive record -- a paltry 19 goals allowed -- Onyewu found himself included in the league's best 11 again.

Overcoming national powerhouses Anderlecht and FC Brugge isn't easy, and Ecuadorean keeper Rorys Aragon Espinoza celebrated winning the title by plunging into the Meuse River in front of Standard's stadium.

"Our back four and goalie all season were wonderful," Onyewu said.

Perhaps Onyewu's biggest blip came off the field. Driving his beloved Chrysler in the snow about a month ago, he skidded off the road, hit some trees and went into a ditch. The Chrysler was destroyed, but Onyewu emerged unscathed.

"Someone was watching over me," he said.

More eyes, as in those of scouts, will be watching in the next month.

Coming off an impressive 3-0 win over Euro 2008 entrant Poland in March in which Onyewu scored, the U.S. faces England at the new Wembley stadium in London on May 28 and Euro 2008 contender Spain in Santander on June 4.

Yorks said "numerous" clubs were keeping tabs on Onyewu, and moving to Italy or Spain wouldn't be as complicated as it normally would because he also has a Belgian passport. In the past, Onyewu has been linked with Middlesbrough, Manchester United, Chelsea and Marseille.

His contract with Standard expires in June 2009.

"Standard is a very good club, and people that run the club are first-class," Yorks said. "If there's a win-win situation where everyone's happy, then that's what we're all shooting for and which I think can be achieved."

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.

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