With EPL disappointment in past, Onyewu's stock on rise

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Finally the muscle-bound centrifuge who powers the U.S. and Standard Liège defense is again on top of his game and again turning heads across Europe -- in Liverpool, where last week he manhandled one of the most vaunted attacks in the game, and in Paris and Rome, where various clubs are rumored to be interested in his services.

So go ahead, skip the tongue-twisting Oguchi Onyewu and just call him "Gooch" again. (Unless, you're talking to him in person. Then it's "Mr. Gooch.")

For a while there, Gooch seemed to disappear. For a while there, anything that smacked of optimism concerning Onyewu was tinged with uncertainty, like it was a jinx or a sting worthy of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. For a while there, we were forced to think of him only as that big, 6-foot-4 American defender with the strange name who played in Belgium -- home to Trappist monks, chocolate and really good beer -- and who failed miserably during a short stint at Newcastle and who seemed destined to dash everyone's hopes of becoming the superstar we all think he can be.

But we always held out hope, didn't we? Because we always remembered when Gooch the Man-Beast first came across our radar in 2004 with a strong international debut against Panama. We were like, who the hell is that colossus marauding in the middle of the defense, swatting little Panamanian strikers aside like mosquitoes?

We remembered when he rose up and slammed in that towering header in the semifinals of the '05 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Man, were we glad he was on our team and not one of those Americans of foreign heritage who decide to go play for their father's homeland. (Yeah, I'm talking about you, Giuseppe Rossi. And you, Edgar Castillo.) Or for some third country, either -- Gooch does have Belgian citizenship, after all.

And we remembered when he took the field in the opener at the '06 World Cup against the Czech Republic. More than anyone on the field, Gooch gave us confidence that we had a chance. He was big enough, athletic enough and just darned nasty enough to deal with the Czechs' massive striker Jan Koller. Unfortunately, Koller was smart enough to avoid Gooch and drift to Eddie Pope's side. Within a few minutes, he had a goal.

A week later, things took a turn for the worse. For the first time, it seemed, our man Gooch was fallible. He brought down a Ghanaian attacker and the referee blew for a penalty. It was a harsh call by any objective measure. He was basically penalized because of his size (a recurring theme in his career, it seems), but regardless, the U.S. lost to Ghana and was knocked out.

Onyewu was named U.S. player of the year in '06, but there was a blemish on his record now. And it grew into a stain the following spring when Standard Liège loaned him out to Newcastle.

Man, did we want him to rise up and be a superstar at St. James' Park. Watching his first game in the famous black-and-white Magpie jersey, we could already see the future headlines: American Named EPL Defender of the Year.

But it wasn't to be. How could it have been? He was playing alongside Titus Bramble. Even Franco Baresi would've been hounded out of town playing alongside Titus Bramble. Besides, Newcastle was a shambles, wilting under the pressure of history, expectations and poor management. When Sam Allardyce was brought in as the new head coach, he cleaned house, and Onyewu was jettisoned like the backwash at the bottom of a pint of Guinness.

There's really only one way in this world to erase perception in sport: win. And win Onyewu did.

When Standard Liège won the Belgian championship last season, it was its first league silverware in 25 years. Onyewu was the steady rock in the middle of the defense from opening day, and by the trophy celebration, he was Gooch again.

But he wasn't done. At Anfield last week, Gooch and his Standard teammates put up such a devilish fight, such a convincing resistance, that they nearly shocked one of soccer's giants. In the process, they earned the respect of both their opponents and the interest of the European soccer community.

This is how fickle this business, er, sport is. One performance and suddenly you are on everyone's transfer list.

First, Paris St. Germain was linked to Gooch. Not a bad option. Then Serie A side Lazio surfaced as a suitor. A better option. Gooch's game would fit nicely in Italy, where he can challenge stand-up target men like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Amauri. And he has enough ball-handling skill to maintain possession long enough to get it to the real skill guys.

The transfer will probably wait for now. None of the hunters decided to pull the trigger. No worries. Gooch is just fine where he is for now. He's got World Cup qualifying this fall and next year. And he's got the UEFA Cup, where he will again have the chance to impress folks in Liverpool: Standard's opponent is Everton.

Whether all the Scousers will have figured out how to pronounce his name or not remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though: We'll be calling him Gooch.