Don't Blame Gooch

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 | View Comments
AC Milan v Chelsea FC

When US National Team defender signed with Italian giants AC Milan July, it was rightly declared a watershed moment in the history of American soccer. One of our boys had been snatched up by one of Europe's most celebrated and storied teams, a club with countless titles to its name and a seemingly perennial UEFA Champions League spot. One of our boys would be lining up with soccer royalty like Ronaldinho, Gattuso, Pirlo, and Seedorf. One of our boys had hit the big time.

Or so we thought.

Milan has played three league matches thus far in the 2009-2010 season, and Onyewu has yet to see the field. More depressingly, Onyewu did not dress for the Rossoneri's most recent game against Livorno on the weekend, and today's match, a Champions League clash with French power Marseille, is extremely unlikely to be Onyewu's Milan debut.

When Onyewu will get playing time is a mystery, answerable only by Milan's manager Leonardo. It's not looking too good, and the US National Team desperately needs Onyewu in-shape, in-form, and playing consistently ahead of next year's World Cup. Onyewu is the American defensive stalwart and a dangerous weapon on set pieces, and Bob Bradley cannot afford to have his first choice central defender rotting on the bench (or worse, in the stands) for his club. Bradley has given lip service to not playing any American not seeing regular playing time for his club; Onyewu's problems may stretch that policy, because the drop off to an understudy is significant.

It would be easy to put this on Gooch, to call him out for reaching too high and signing up with a top-level club without a certainty that he would play. But that's unfair to an athlete whose career is finite and ability to earn a living playing a game is ephemeral. If you're a soccer player, and AC Milan comes calling, how can you possibly say no?

Playing time is important. Training alone can't improve a player past a certain point, and at twenty-seven, Gooch's development period is essentially over. That's not to say he can't get better, but to do so requires playing in a live match against quality opponents with the intensity of the game framing his actions. Onyewu isn't yet getting that experience at Milan, and one has to wonder if he ever will. There's an outside chance he could play his way into the team, and with Milan's form leaving something to be desired, it's always possible that Leonardo could shake things up. For the time being though, US National Team fans have to sit here and watch as their defensive linchpin stagnates at one of the most crucial points of the international soccer calendar.

Onyewu did what any player would do. He made a move to a team kids the world over dream of playing for one day. He broke ground as an American, signing with a massive club in a league that never signs Americans. He set an example for millions of youth players in the United States who might never have believed that they could grow up in this country playing the sport and one day find themselves at AC Milan.

He did what any confident player would do, and signed believing he could play himself into a starting position.

That it hasn't yet worked out is a problem, and it's obviously up to Onyewu to prove to Leonardo that he deserves a shot. It's frustrating for American soccer fans who want to see Gooch playing and playing well before both the remaining qualifying schedule and the World Cup, especially with the depth at central defense lacking. Selfishly, it's natural for us to wonder why Onyewu would make it this difficult on himself, when other offers were obviously in play.

Would you rather have Onyewu playing at a lesser club, or riding the bench at Milan?

Don't answer that. If you're reading this piece, you're likely a National Team fan, which means that the former would be much more preferable to you than the latter. But that doesn't mean you should blame Onyewu for grabbing an amazing opportunity when it was presented to him. If Gooch had signed elsewhere, in a lesser league or with a lesser club, and it had been revealed that AC Milan had offered him a contract, I might wonder about his mental toughness; players who aspire to be great should always push towards the greatest challenge rather than slide sideways into the path of least resistance. Onyewu has taken on the challenge, and we should commend him for it.

All the while worrying about his lack of playing time, of course.

Just because I'm proud of Gooch for landing at AC Milan and laud him for his belief that he could play there, I'm not above making this statement: If Oguchi Onyewu isn't playing come January, forcing a transfer or loan will be a necessity.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.
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