The Oguchi Onyewu matter: Is he World Cup ready?

You won't see all of these guys in South Africa; final cuts are today. You will see No. 5, Oguchi Onyewu ... but can he be ready? We still don't know.

 

Oguchi Onyewu needed to begin allaying concerns last night against the Czech Republic – and I’m just not sure he made any progress.

I don’t know if Onyewu can recover the requisite mobility and timing in the next two weeks. I’m not saying he can’t, I’m just saying we still don’t know. We don’t know where he is in terms of speed, strength, agility, stamina timing and, yes, leaping ability. Ahem.

Neither does anybody else who saw Tuesday’s match, which included several defensive lowlights. People privy to the closed practice sessions know a little more about his course of work over a week and change. The rest of us still don’t have answers.

But I do know this: if Onyewu hasn’t shown more in practice, then he still has a lot to prove based on last night’s mixed bag.  He had two basic objectives in this ongoing pre-World Cup camp: to re-gain match fitness and technical sharpness that he’ll need in big supply come June 12 in Rustenburg, and; to show coaches in matches that he can cut it.

It’s on him to prove that he can pass muster in a full-speed, weighty World Cup match, where mistakes are punished with extreme prejudice. Again, he didn’t prove that he couldn’t do it last night … but neither did he prove World Cup-worthy. Surely he understands this? Surely he understands what’s at stake, that he has to prove his place just like anyone else? Or does he?

(Onyewu gets defensive ... after the jump)

 

Onyewu got defensive last night when reporters asked about rustiness. What, he didn’t anticipate those questions? He hasn’t played in seven months, and he’s days away from dealing with Wayne Rooney and England, for goodness sakes. Onyewu has never been one of the best about working with the press. Playing his entire career inEurope, I suspect he’s generally been shielded from the interview process. Over there, writers just write what they want, and they generally aren’t afforded access to players. Over here, people actually make an attempt to gather information from the source. So last night, instead of just writing that he looked rusty, some reporters asked him about it. You know, attempting to gather information from the source. His terse response: 
 "Did you see any rustiness?"

Hmmm. Look here, big guy, being churlish with the press is not going to make things any easier on you in the long run. Trust me on this one. You start rolling that bolder downhill and it’s going to gain momentum fast.

And besides that, yes, we did see some. Suffice to say, being beaten easily on headers is not why you got a deal with AC Milan, where they work in defense the way

Leonardo da Vinci worked in ground-breaking art.

Onyewu wanted to dismiss his inability to issue a critical challenge as just one of those things. "He jumped before me. While he was in the air and I’m just trying to jump up, he had his forearm keeping me down. He just put his weight against me and jumped early, that’s all."

That’s all, eh? What about this: you get a little closer to your mark on a set piece from a dangerous place?  Is that too much to ask?  That’s pretty much a staple of center back’s job, yeah?  (FYI: anyone remember who was beaten at the near post on Jan Koller’s header four years ago, the Czech’s first goal – one that got the ball rolling in the wrong direction in Germany?)

Indications of Onyewu’s mobility at the moment (or lack of it) are exactly what people are looking for. If he could have gotten closer to Tomas Sivok a little faster Tuesday, he would have been in position to leap. Coaches tell players all the time, they don’t have to win a clean header in that situation, but they do have to issue a strong challenge, just to keep the attacker from doing exactly what Sivok did, cleanly deposit his header in a precise location. In order to do so, they have to be tight. It’s all about positioning and relationship to the player and the goal. It’s not a mortal sin to be three steps away from your mark – but it’s not rustiness, then what is it? He didn’t know he should have been closer?

I don’t know if Onyewu was being obtuse here or if he truly believes he wasn’t culpable. I just think I’d feel a little better this morning if the big center back had said something like this in the post-game analysis: "Yeah, I got beat and I have to do better. We’ve got a World Cup coming up, and if I can’t mark a man on a set piece, then we need someone in there who can. I’ll get there. Trust me."

Otherwise, Onyewu’s night was uneventful. He seemed to look a little awkward at times; then again, he’s never been an elegant defender. Maldini he ain’t. That’s not a criticism, it’s just to say that we couldn’t tell much from a night where the Czech strikers weren’t much of a menace. (A strange thing to say after a the home team gives up a four-spot, I realize; most of the real damage came along that U.S. left side, which continues to be a real bugger.)

Let’s hope Onyewu looks a little better on Saturday.

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