Soccer America
Wednesday June 3rd, 2009

On the eve of the United States' tough World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica (Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and Galavisión), reports surfaced of a legal action filed by American defender Oguchi Onyewu, who claims an opposing player used racial taunts during a Belgian league game.

Standard Liège beat Anderlecht 2-1 in the two-game playoff to win the league title for the second straight season. During the first leg, a 1-1 tie, Onyewu alleges Anderlecht player Jelle Van Damme, who is white, called him a "dirty monkey" several times. A lawyer representing Onyewu, Jean-Louis Dupont, filed a complaint in a Brussels court Tuesday.

"He was convinced it was his duty to lodge the complaint," Dupont told The Associated Press. "It is not a question whether Van Damme is racist. The issue is that these slurs are still used on the pitch, and are being used because they know it hurts." (Van Damme has denied the allegations, according to the AP.)

It's yet another turn in the career of Onyewu, who played two college seasons at Clemson before heading overseas to play for French club Metz, earned a contract with Standard during a loan spell, went on loan again to Newcastle and turned down a move to Spain while establishing himself as one of the top defenders in Belgium and a stalwart in the U.S. back line.

"He played a lot of games," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said of Onyewu earlier this year (Onyewu has played 40 times for the U.S. since his debut in 2004). "Defensively, he was consistent. The defensive record we had with the national team and the defensive record Standard Liège had were both good ones. The guys who played key roles in that should feel that they did their jobs well. He's contributed with some goals on set pieces and I think he's matured."

The threat the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Onyewu presents on dead balls has produced goals for the U.S., both directly and on rebounds, yet much of the American success in the next year will likely depend on how solidly he and central partner Carlos Bocanegra can perform in the middle (though at Rennes this past season, Bocanegra played left back).

"I could have said Carlos instead of Gooch because in some ways, I feel good about the improvement both have shown," Bradley said of the duo. "The first half of the year, because Carlos was leaving Fulham, he was a little bit out of the picture. Certainly Carlos has had a good, steady run with Rennes and they've had some success. Maturity, consistency and providing the kind of solid play in the center of the back, and he's gone to the left with Rennes, has filled that team's need to be successful."

Bocanegra hopes to erase memories of the last visit to Saprissa, in October 2005. With the U.S. already qualified for the '06 World Cup, Costa Rica destroyed the Americans 3-0. "That was a real eye-opener for me," Bocanegra said. "That was the first time I'd played for the U.S. where we were really dominated."

Onyewu, 27, has played out his contract with Standard Liège after five seasons and is weighing his options. Unless sidelined by injury, he'll likely accompany the team to South Africa for the Confederations Cup during which the U.S. plays Italy, Brazil and Egypt in the first round.

The U.S. trained on the artificial turf at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa on Monday and Tuesday to get familiar with the surface installed in '04 under permission from FIFA, which earlier this decade lifted its ban on official matches being played on anything but grass.

"Obviously, we're not used to playing on turf, but we're going to deal with the fact that we have to," said Onyewu, who also played in the team's last visit to Saprissa. "During training, we're becoming better acclimated to the surface, and over in the States we trained a couple of times on turf, so we're getting used to it more and more, day by day."

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