Onyewu finding his way into Milan
U.S. national-team defender Oguchi Onyewu signed with Italian power AC Milan
A huge move for 'Gooch,' but it remains to be seen how much he'll play for team
Onyewu made debut at this month's World Football Classic exhibition tournament
Spend some time in the inner sanctum of AC Milan's high-security hotel floor, and you'll see soccer royalty up close and personal. Up walks Ronaldinho, the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, with a smile and a "Bom día." Here comes Clarence Seedorf, the four-time Champions League winner, with a handshake and tales of meeting Nelson Mandela.
And in strides the U.S.' own Oguchi Onyewu, dressed to kill in team-issued Dolce & Gabbana, chatting with his new teammates like just one of the guys.
Only three weeks have passed since Onyewu, the 27-year-old center back known to American fans as "Gooch," became the first U.S. international ever to sign with Milan, one of the giants in world soccer. And despite meeting the team only a week ago, Onyewu -- who was born in Maryland to Nigerian immigrants -- already has made a positive first impression inside the Milan locker room.
"We've connected already," says Seedorf, the decorated Dutch midfielder. "He has a great spirit -- the American spirit, if you can put it like that -- but he also has the African passion within him. I think he's going to be an important asset for the team, and the fact that he's young and still hungry to win is going to help the team spirit. He's not going to have a difficult time integrating himself into the team and into the championship in Italy."
Onyewu got thrown right into the fire last week, appearing in all three of Milan's World Football Challenge preseason games, which is why he was so appreciative of the warm welcome he received from the team.
"This is a great group of guys, and the coaching staff and everybody has been very open to me so that I don't feel like an outsider," Onyewu says. "In a lot of teams, you don't get that kind of atmosphere and a lot of players stick to themselves. But here you could see it when I entered my first game: Everyone was congratulating me. It was a good feeling to know I have the support of my teammates."
The hulking 6-foot-4, 200-pound Onyewu's rise to the famed Rossoneri might have caught some observers off guard, but it was the result of several factors: his success at Standard Ličge, the club that has won the last two Belgian championships; his free-agent status, which allowed him to join Milan on a free transfer; and (the clincher) Onyewu's standout performance at last month's Confederations Cup as the U.S. upset Spain and reached the final before losing to Brazil.
The Confederations Cup "was important," says Milan coach Leonardo. "We knew him for the last few years because we follow the championship even in Belgium. But when a player is with his national team and arrives in the final and plays well in hard marking against [Fernando] Torres and Kaká and very good players, that's the moment of the big test."
Milan needed a young central defender with size, says the club's organizing director Umberto Gandini, and so it signed Gooch to a three-year contract. Still, "surprise" wasn't the word Onyewu picked to describe his emotions upon joining Milan.
"I don't feel as though a player who plays for his national team or that's a professional should ever be surprised by a success, because that's ultimately what everyone works toward," he says. "But I was very happy. I know it's a rare occasion when an American or when any player gets the OK from a team like AC Milan."
The big question is, how much playing time will Gooch get in Gucci-land? From a national-team perspective, the U.S. can't afford to have him riding the pine in a World Cup year. Onyewu will certainly have tough competition from fellow center backs Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta, Kakha Kaladze and Daniele Bonera. But the last three players have all been injury-prone, and Nesta (who's 33) and Kaladze (31) are not young. What's more, Milan will need a lot of bodies now that it's back in the Champions League this year.
"Obviously one of my objectives is to break into the lineup," Onyewu says. "Anybody's objective should be that. I know there's stiff competition in defense, and that's not going to stop me. I'm going to work hard and hopefully break into it if not in a week or a month or if it takes a season, I'm going to let them know that my effort is to be a starter and contribute to the team."
Of course, the man who will decide is Leonardo, the Brazilian World Cup winner who enters his first year coaching Milan with the task of reloading after the loss of Kaká to Real Madrid. I asked Leonardo straight up: How much will Onyewu play?
"We don't know," he said. "We have a lot of situations we have to study. The last few years we have had a lot of injuries to defenders with Kaladze and Nesta and Bonera. Now we have Thiago Silva on the team. For [Onyewu], it's the same as for the others. At AC Milan, we always look for high performance. Who is better in the moment, that's the player who will be on the pitch."
Already, though, Leonardo says he has noticed that Onyewu has a good mind for the tactical soccer that Italy is famous for. "In Europe we think a lot in that, in coordinating the movements to understand how we defend," the coach says. "To understand the mechanics of how we play will not be a problem for him. He seems to be very smart in that, in understanding how everything moves."
Onyewu's debut with Milan in front of a U.S. audience last week was reminiscent of Tim Howard's debut with Manchester United during its 2003 American tour. And as you might expect given his abbreviated time with the team, Onyewu wasn't perfect on the field, getting beaten for goals against Club América and Inter Milan. But Gooch was effective at other times, using his size to win aerial battles and coordinating with teammates on the offside trap. (And as Inter's Sulley Muntari learned, getting sandwiched by Onyewu and Gennaro Gattuso is not fun at all.)
"That's what these preseason games are about," says Onyewu. "If there are errors to make, make them now so you don't make them during the season. Right now is just the beginning. This is where the real work starts."
But let's be honest: Onyewu's signing with AC Milan is a huge step forward for U.S. soccer, a remarkable opportunity for the Clemson product to show that U.S. field players can thrive at the world's top clubs. Judging by his interactions with his new teammates, you can tell they're already comfortable with Onyewu.
Nor was Gooch's first week with Milan without a few moments of levity. There was the moment late against América when Onyewu moved upfield and nearly provided a header assist worthy of an elite target forward. ("I've been trying to tell Bob Bradley," Onyewu joked, "but he doesn't listen!") There was the sage advice that Seedorf said he would share with his new teammate. ("It's very simple," Seedorf cracked. "Stay close to me.")
And then there was the jersey-number issue. U.S. fans may not want to buy a No. 14 Milan jersey with Onyewu's name just yet, even though he wore those digits over the past week.
"I'm trying to get No. 5," Onyewu says of his longtime club number. "Right now, one plus four is why I got 14." Yet Gooch knows that it will take some persuasive negotiation to pry away No. 5 from its current holder, Mathieu Flamini. "They said I have about three weeks before they officially release the numbers, so if I can persuade somebody with force, I might have to."
Onyewu smiles. He's joking. I think.