By Grant Wahl
January 20, 2014

Oguchi Onyewu U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu remains focused on a place on the World Cup squad despite struggles with injury and playing time on the club level. (Steve Conner/Icon SMI)

It had been a year and 10 days since Oguchi Onyewu, the two-time U.S. World Cup defender, had played 90 minutes at the club level. But Onyewu’s debut for Sheffield Wednesday in the English second tier on Saturday couldn’t have gone much better.

Not only did Onyewu start soon after joining the club from Queens Park Rangers, but he had a solid game, making 23 clearances and providing the assist on his team’s goal in a 1-1 tie at second-place Burnley. It was an encouraging day for the big American, who is a longshot to make the World Cup team but is desperately trying to make a case for himself.

“For the last eight months, all my decisions have been World Cup-based,” Onyewu told in a phone interview. “I feel as though in the last three-and-a-half years I’ve had some setbacks with injuries. But I’ve recovered well … Even though I hadn’t played in a long time, I think the few games I played last summer with the national team [at the Gold Cup] showed I can still compete on that level for sure.

“For me, it’s about climbing up that hill, and as long as the hill is still there and I can see the top, I’m still up for the climb,” “The World Cup is the mountain I’m climbing right now.”

Onyewu, 31, wasn’t able to earn regular playing time in recent stops with Málaga and QPR, but Sheffield Wednesday needed a center back after Roger Johnson moved to West Ham. Stuart Gray, Wednesday’s caretaker manager, contacted Onyewu, and the American did his due diligence, speaking at length about the club with U.S. teammate Stuart Holden, who’d played there on loan last season.

The Owls are two points out of the relegation zone and needed someone with Onyewu’s size and experience. The man known as Gooch, meanwhile, needed playing time and now looks like he’ll get it.

“I definitely think it’s possible and probable,” he said. “I’m not thinking it will be easy, but I do feel the coach is an advocate of me and wants me to play. That’s a good sign.”

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With several U.S. internationals returning to MLS, including Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, it might make sense for an MLS team to have pursued Onyewu, but he said no MLS teams had approached him with any offers. (Onyewu is able to play in England without having to acquire a work permit because he has Belgian citizenship from his years with Standard Liege.)

Speaking with Onyewu also gave me the chance to finally ask him about the legendary training-field scrap he got into with Zlatan Ibrahimovic when they were both with AC Milan in 2010. In Ibrahimovic’s autobiography, the star striker described Onyewu as “an American the size of a house” resembling “a heavyweight boxer.” Ibra, a taekwondo black belt, claimed he broke one of his ribs in their fight. “We wanted to tear each other limb from limb,” he wrote.

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Onyewu laughed when asked about the incident. “Well, many people have tried to get my story out of me, because they’ve obviously read his book,” he said. “I haven’t read his book, but people have told me what has been said. I think there’s some truth in the stories — there’s definitely some lies — but right now I don’t feel the need to hash it back out and start controversy for no reason. Let calm waters be calm, and when the waves come I’ll get on my surfboard. Maybe when I write my book I’ll put it in there.”

He chuckled again. More often than not, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Onyewu has been a gentle giant in his career. He’s working on finishing his degrees in foreign languages and international trade from Clemson — he turned pro after two years of college — and he has hopes of expanding his foundation. But for right now his focus is on becoming a regular contributor at club level again and doing everything he can to put himself in the World Cup conversation.

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