It's been a few weeks since he ruptured his patellar tendon, but U.S. national team defender Oguchi Onyewu is already heading on the road to recovery.
"The surgery went well, I was told afterwards that it was textbook," said Onyewu, who is now rehabbing in California. "Everything went along well, I am feeling better each day."
Onyewu suffered the injury in the final World Cup qualifier of the hexagonal round in the dramatic 2-2 tie against Costa Rica on Oct. 14. The U.S. had already qualified for the World Cup next summer, but the match was a good way for U.S. coach Bob Bradley to maintain the fitness and game sharpness of certain players such as Onyewu. At club level, the defender has struggled for consistent minutes while acclimating to his new team, AC Milan. The injury has temporarily shelved his drive to crack into the Serie A side's starting 11.
Onyewu's injury came on a routine play. Getting ready to challenge for a header, Onyewu planted his left foot into the ground, "something I have done a million times," he said. Upon landing, Onyewu remembers thinking something was odd and recalls his initial instinct was that he was kicked in the back of the leg by someone.
"I kept telling everyone that I had been, I had been kicked," Onyewu said. "They kept telling me that wasn't the case. I kept saying I knew it, I felt it. That's what it felt like."
It wasn't until a few days later when he saw the video of the injury online that Onyewu saw for himself that the injury was not a result of a foul or a kick to the leg. He clearly remembers that the Costa Rican players were motioning for the medical staff to come to him as he lay prostrate on the field in pain. Onyewu recalls looking down and seeing that his kneecap was in his quadriceps muscle.
"It looked pretty bad," he said.
With surgery complete, Onyewu is focused on rehab with an eye toward making a return to his club team, perhaps as early as March. His surgery in late October went according to plan.
"This was a textbook type of rupture of the patellar tendon, which allowed for the best possible scenario to repair the injury and provide for a good prognosis for recovery," said Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, the national team's physician.
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Typically, a surgery like this will result in being sidelined for more than half a year. In this instance, the length of time for the rehabilitation process is open to debate between physician and patient.
"Based on the nature of the injury and the success of the surgery, we expect the recovery process to take approximately six months," Dr. Mandelbaum said.
The central defender is bold enough to say that he could probably push it and make it back on the field in three months, but he would risk further injury. He then provided his own prognosis.
"I know my body and I know how hard I work to recover and how my body heals," Onyewu said. "I think I can be back in four months, realistically."
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His rehab focuses primarily on mobility, despite the fact that the defender moves about on crutches and wears a brace. The fact that he can move his leg only "about 30 degrees" is an indicator of how far he has to go. Each day, he continues to work on strengthening his quad muscle so as to speed the recovery.
The break has allowed him to enjoy sunny California for a few weeks. He took in a Los Angeles Galaxy game two weekends ago at the Home Depot Center. Onyewu said that the response of the crowd, many of whom applauded him when he hobbled by, was "very touching, it was moving."
He also has been following all the talk about his club team's seeking compensation from the United States Soccer Federation.
An injury suffered by English international Michael Owen in the 2006 World Cup resulted in a similar dispute between club and country. Onyewu is not to keen to get involved.
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"It isn't my job to handle things like that," the defender said. "They will work out what they need to. I don't want to get involved; it doesn't impact me, what I do, or how I will work to recover."
Onyewu said that he got well wishes and a visit from the national team coach after his surgery. There was no discussion about a spot being reserved for the defender in next summer's World Cup squad. According to Onyewu, it wasn't necessary.
"We both know what I need to do. Nothing more had to be said," Onyewu said about his visit from Bradley. "He knows, I know. When you've been involved in qualifiers, you know what your role is. I know what I need to do to get back to be able to contribute next summer."
It is a promise he intends to keep.
"The fans have been great, very supportive of me," Onyewu said. "I look forward to paying them back for their support the past few weeks. You have not seen the last of me, not by a long shot."
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com.
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