Oguchi Onyewu: The Man Who Wouldn’t Back Down From a Fight

united states defender oguchi onyewu

Player Profile: Oguchi Onyewu

Date of Birth: 13/05/1982

Height: 1.96 m (6 ft 5 in)

Position(s): Center back

National Team: United States Men’s National Team

International Caps: 69

International Goals: 6

Club Career

In 2002, after two seasons of college soccer at Clemson University in South Carolina, Oguchi Onyewu made the decision to go pro. The big man was ready for an even bigger challenge, and that’s exactly what he got. In what he has called the hardest decision of his life, the 19-year-old Onyewu moved to France, signing with Ligue 2 side Metz.

Onyewu was on the books at Metz for two seasons but played just 3 times for Les GrenatsHe spent the 2003-04 season on loan at Belgian Pro League side La Louviere, and it was there that Onyewu began to mark his mark.

The big center back would go on to play 24 times for La Louviere, scoring one goal. While playing for the second-division side, he caught the eye of Belgian giants, Standard Liege. He initially moved from Metz to Liege on a loan deal, but the move was quickly made permanent.

In only a short time, Onyewu became one of the most important players for the Belgian club. By the end of the season, he was named in the Belgian Pro League’s Best XI and won the Foreign Player of the Year Award. No mean feat for a player who had just one full season of professional football behind before joining the club.

Onyewu would play another season and a half with Standard before he was on the move again. During that time he played in 74 league matches and scored 6 times. The defender also appeared in 2 qualifying games in the UEFA Champions League during the 06-07 season.

If you make an impression at a club like Standard Liege, Europe’s big boys will always be lurking. For Onyewu and Standard, it was Newcastle United in the English Premier League who expressed interest in his services. In an effort to trial Onyewu before making it a permanent move, Newcastle opted to loan Onyewu for the remainder of the 2006-07 season.

Onyewu made his Newcastle debut in February against Fulham and played 11 more times in front of the Toon Army, but it was a move that never quite worked out for either side. Onyewu never got comfortable on Tyneside, and his form suffered as a result. His lack of form combined with the arrival of new manager, Sam Allardyce, meant Newcastle did not make the loan move permanent.

The American returned to Belgium to begin the 2007-08 season. His return coincided with an incredible 29-match unbeaten run that ended with the Belgian Pro League title. At the end of the season, Onyewu was once again named in the Belgian league’s Best XI.

Standard Liege and Onyewu were champions once again the following season. During the Belgian Championship playoff final against Anderlecht, Onyewu was the victim of racist abuse at the hands of Anderlecht defender Jelle Van Damme. Onyewu claimed that Van Damme called him a “dirty ape” repeatedly.

The incident took place at a time when there were no UEFA protocols for handling racist abuse from fans or players like there is today. As a result, the issue was not handled on the field, but in a court of law after the season ended. Eventually, the lawsuit was dropped after Van Damme apologized.

Onyewu’s contract had run out at the end of the 2009 season and with that, he was off. The American had played 139 times for Standard Liege, scoring 11 goals. He won 2 Belgian First Division titles and a Belgian Supercup in his time with the club and was ready for a new challenge.

In the summer of 2009, Onyewu made the move to Italian giants A.C. Milan on a free transfer. If you have a picture of Onyewu playing for Milan, you have yourself a collector’s item. He played just once for Milan during his two years with the club, coming on in a Champions League group stage loss against FC Zurich. The defender’s first season in Milan was cut short later that fall when he suffered a season-ending knee injury while on national team duty with the United States. 

Following that season, Milan announced that Onyewu’s 3-year contract would be extended by one year, but that the extension would include no salary. This request came from Onyewu himself as he tried desperately to prove he could make an impact at such a famous club.

That impact was finally felt in November 2010 in the ribcage of Milan star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Onyewu, taking offense to a hard tackle from Ibrahimovic, hit the striker, starting a training pitch fight. The result of the fight left Ibrahimovic with a broken rib and Onyewu sent out on loan.

In January 2011, Onyewu joined Dutch Eredivisie side FC Twente on loan until the end of the season. While he was only with the Dutch side for a few months, Onyewu managed to feature in both domestic and European competitions for Twente. He even picked up a cup winners medal after Twente won the KNVB Cup final against Ajax.

In the summer of 2011, Onyewu nightmare time at Milan came to an end when he joined Portuguese side Sporting CP on a free transfer. During the season Onyewu established himself as a regular starter for the Lisbon-based club. That was until injuries early in 2012 kept him out for two months. Despite the injury, Onyewu still managed to play in 31 matches in all competitions that season, scoring 5 goals.

The 2012-13 season saw a new manager and with him two new center backs. Onyewu was deemed surplus to requirements and was sent on loan to Malaga in La Liga.

Ironically, Onyewu’s debut for Malaga came in a Champions League fixture against his former club A.C. Milan. But similar to his time in Italy, his time with Malaga was overly successful. He left the Spanish club having played in just 9 matches, scoring 2 goals.

Onyewu was once again on the move as he and Sporting agreed to terminate his contract, leaving him a free agent yet again. He spent the next two seasons playing a total of 21 matches for 3 separate English clubs; Queen’s Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic.

The defender was released by the Addicks after the 2014-15 season. Following his release, Onyewu spent the next two seasons unemployed. He trialed with MLS side New York City FC and Scottish Premiership side Rangers, but neither club offered him a contract.

Eventually, Onyewu got himself one last job, signing with Major League Soccer club Philadelphia Union with the intent to be a veteran backup. Despite this, he became a regular starter, playing 22 times for the Union. 

That was to be Onyewu’s final season in professional soccer. In September 2018, he officially announced his retirement from football.

Overall, Onyewu had a 15-year professional career, spanning 8 countries. He played in 247 professional matches and scored 17 goals. Despite having a successful career in Europe, most American fans are left wondering what could have been if he hadn’t lost that first season at Milan to injury. Could he have been the next American to play consistently in a top-level league for one of the world’s biggest clubs? Sadly, injuries robbed him of that chance, and we will never know.

International Career

Oguchi Onyewu received his first international cap against Panama in 2004 after starring for various youth national squads. His breakout performance for his country came just under a year later when he had a memorable outing against Jared Borgetti and bitter rivals Mexico.

During the match, just one of a string of “dos-a-cero” victories the United States pulled off against Mexico at Crew Stadium, Onyewu kept Mexico’s star striker “in his pocket” and visibly frustrated for most of the match. One particularly memorable moment saw Borgetti attempt to intimidate Onyewu by getting in his face. The big American defender stared him down, not backing down from the challenge.

It was this meme-able moment that won Onyewu the hearts of many American soccer fans. What made this performance even more important was the fact that just a few months earlier, he had played particularly poorly against the Mexicans. Mexico defeated the United States at their Mexico City fortress, Azteca Stadium on that occasion. To say Onyewu had redeemed himself is an understatement.

The center back played in two World Cups for the United States, in 2006 and 2010. He started in all three of the United States’ games in their failed trip to Germany. However, at the end of the calendar year, Onyewu was named 2006 U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year.

Alongside Clint Dempsey, Onyewu was one of the standout performers at the 2009 Confederations Cup for the United States. The United States had a terrific run through the tournament included a 2-0 victory over European Champions Spain in the semi-final, and won a runner’s up medal after losing to Brazil in the final.

The following year Onyewu played in two matches at the 2010 World Cup, but was not selected for the U.S.’s knockout round game against Ghana, which ended in defeat. After the 2010 World Cup Onyewu would feature only a handful of times for the national team before his final appearance in 2014.

Oguchi Onyewu’s international career ended with 69 caps and 6 goals. He won two CONCACAF Gold Cups with the United States in 2005 and 2007, in addition to his runners up medal from the 2009 Confederations Cup. 

Where is Oguchi Onyewu Now?

In retirement, Oguchi Onyewu has kept himself busy in and out of the game he loves. He is the owner of a sports performance company in Virginia called Onyx Elite. Onyewu also currently holds the role of Sporting Director for Orlando City B in USL League One.

Did You Know?

– Oguchi Onyewu is the second-tallest outfield player in U.S. National Team history. 

– He is the most recent male defender to win U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award.