Onyewu enjoying run with Dutch club; more Americans Abroad
Upon first glance, that reads more like something found in a fact-checking exercise for journalism students than the truth.
Given Onyewu's dominant showing at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and his subsequent signing with Italian power AC Milan, playing an unusual position on loan in the Netherlands less than two years later had to be considered anything but a likely scenario for the United States' physically imposing and No. 1 center back.
But that's the situation in which the 28-year-old veteran of two World Cups currently finds himself, and he couldn't sound more at peace.
"I was pleased to be given the opportunity to play regular football again," Onyewu told SI.com via telephone. "Regardless of how big Milan was, I think a player's aspirations are to play, and at the moment that wasn't where my situation was. It was my responsibility to look for the best situation where I could be happy and playing football. I feel as though I found the right fit for myself, and I'm enjoying my time right now."
The roller-coaster ride that has been Onyewu's last 18 months is well-documented. He suffered a major knee injury in World Cup qualifying in October 2009, derailing his momentum train that was riding at a blistering speed after his role in the United States' upset of Spain and run to the Confederations Cup final.
He parlayed his high stock into a move to the legendary Italian club, but his honeymoon period with Milan lasted all of a couple months.
Onyewu appeared as a substitute in a UEFA Champions League group stage match for the club before rupturing his left patellar tendon against Costa Rica a little more than 15 months ago. Despite beating medical odds and regaining fitness to be a part of this past summer's World Cup, his only notable associations with Milan since then have been pledging to play the final season of his contract (the 2012-13 season) without receiving a salary and reportedly getting into a training-field altercation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic this past November (Onyewu steadfastly refuses to comment on either incident).
Despite being fully fit, he wasn't able to crack the matchday roster once for the club in its current campaign and was left off the club's competition roster for the UEFA Champions League.
"A lot of different things go into consideration when coach's decisions are made," Onyewu said. "I don't try to read too much into the reasons. I try to focus on working as hard as I can and making me the best me I can be. After that, if it doesn't work out, then you have to reassess your plans and start over, which is what I'm doing right now."
Given his tenuous position with the club and his desperate need for playing time ahead of this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, a loan was a must, even with the failure of his midseason loan to Newcastle in 2007 still lingering a bit in the rearview mirror. With the circumstances much different this time around, the move to Twente came at an opportune time. It wasn't the only offer he received, either.
"There were some options on the table from different countries, arguably from more competitive leagues, depending on who you ask," Onyewu said without specifying any clubs. "I felt that given the fact that it's been over a season since I've had regular football, this would be the most realistic and best possibility, from a sporting aspect, to get back into the mix and get my feet back on the ground and doing what I love to do. Everything else will work itself out."
In his three appearances with his new club, Onyewu has played left back, something he said he had never done before as a professional. He said that he was initially formed as a right back in the first few years career, but with his top attributes not necessarily being finesse but more so size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and physicality, it's been clear for some time that he's built to be a prototypical center back.
Nevertheless, Twente has an immediate need at left back, and Onyewu is tackling his new challenge like he does opposing forwards -- with an all-in attitude and a determination to come out on top. Whether he will earn time in central defense is unknown.
"I'm at the disposition of the coach," Onyewu said. "Everyone is familiar with the fact that I'm more comfortable in central defense. and that's primarily the position I've been playing for the past some-odd years. Me being able to jump into any role across the back line can only help me in terms of my versatility and my skills on the field. I'm using this as a learning experience and trying to make the best of it."
It certainly plays into Onyewu's favor that his coach at Twente is Michel Preud'homme, under whom he flourished at Belgian side Standard Liege.
"It puts you at ease to the point where your coach knows your strengths and knows what you're capable of," Onyewu said. "You don't have to have that sort of nervousness or edginess to the whole unknown. The fact I've known Michel so long kind of puts me at ease. I also know that nothing is given for free, and I have to fight for my position on this team."
In Onyewu's first appearance with the club, during a friendly, he scored a goal by heading home a corner kick. He proceeded to play the full 90 minutes in his first two league matches, putting to rest any doubts about his fitness level.
"The question of my fitness obviously would pop up to any coach that saw my situation within the past 12 months, but I assured (Preud'homme), and he saw through the trainings that I was match-fit," Onyewu said. "Regardless of my playing status, I've been keeping up with my physical condition off the field, so that was never an issue."
When Onyewu had to be subbed off after 26 minutes in Twente's Dutch Cup match against PSV Eindhoven last week, it raised some eyebrows given his recent injury history. He said that he tweaked a muscle in his ribs when making a run to win the ball from a winger in the opening minutes and tried to play through the injury but ultimately thought against risking further damage. He missed the team's league match over the weekend while getting the necessary rest and rehabilitation and shouldn't be required to miss much more time.
As for the status of Onyewu's knee, which has been under high levels of scrutiny ever since he was unceremoniously pulled from the United States' group match against Slovenia during the World Cup and never seen again on the pitch in South Africa, he says it's at 100 percent.
"The knee feels fine," Onyewu said. "I showed that in the last national team friendlies (this past October) that I played in that there were no issues with my knee. Thus far I haven't had any setbacks. It's not even a thought right now when I play.
"It's important that I get it out of people's heads that it was an issue. Obviously it was a serious injury. A lot of people feel that, for whatever reason, once a player has a serious injury he won't be the same or it's always going to linger. In some cases that does happen, but when the surgeon is as good as mine was, it's not going to be a problem down the line, and that's what I'm experiencing right now."
With a new lease on club soccer life, Onyewu might be just where he needs to be in order to get back on track and resume his spot as the dominant anchor of United States coach Bob Bradley's defense.
In his half a season or so remaining at Twente, he'll play in meaningful matches for a team competing for its second consecutive Dutch Eredivisie title while also vying for European silverware in the UEFA Europa League.
"I'm extremely hungry to show everybody that my form is coming back to where it was before my injury, and that regardless of the setbacks that I've faced in the past, it's not going to hold me down," Onyewu said. "I'm definitely going to be the player and more that I once was.
"I'm definitely happy, feeling confident and the sky's the limit."
The prevailing hope for Onyewu, his fans, teammates and coaches on the club and international levels is that his bold statements prove to be factually correct, as well.
Here's how Onyewu and the other Americans playing abroad -- including those shipped to new teams at the end of the transfer window -- fared this past week (statistics encompass all competitions):