Time for Gooch to Go

Monday, December 27, 2010 | View Comments

When Oguchi Onyewu parlayed his successful run at Standard Liege in Belgium into a contract with Italian giants AC Milan, American soccer appeared to have taken a step forward. An American had landed with a Champions League perennial, one of the world's most well known soccer institutions, and in a league where exactly one other Yank had ever played before (Alexi Lalas at Padova way back in the mid-90s); with all of those factors at play, it was hard not to see Gooch's Italian windfall as a pretty big deal.

Not that there weren't reservations. Onyewu had an obvious uphill battle for playing time, and National Team fans wondered if Gooch was getting in over his head. Some of that was the typical American soccer cynicism and inferiority. Some of it was an honest assessment of AC Milan's defense in relation to what Onyewu's abilities. A few thought Gooch was making a mistake, should never have signed with Milan in the first place, would have better off finding a slightly lower level.  Why risk not playing?

Back when he signed, the decision was understandable. Who could fault a player for wanting to prove himself at one of the biggest clubs in the world?  Professional athletes must be confident to be good, and on the evidence of joining up with Milan, Gooch certainly had confidence. Surely he knew how difficult breaking into the lineup for the Rossoneri would be, but that wasn't going to prevent him from giving it a shot.

In retrospect, who knows how things might have gone had Onyewu not ruptured his patellar tendon in October of 2009. The events of the last year appear to prove the doubters correct, but no one foresaw such a devastating setback, and no one knows whether Gooch might have played his way into the regular team had he been healthy. It's easy to say signing with Milan was a mistake now, with a year and half of hindsight in play and Onyewu still languishing in street clothes come Milan matchdays; the reality is that the injury invalidates the use of black and white labels, at least not as it relates to Onyewu's decision.  As a matter of "success" or "failure" however, only one applies. Assigning blame for why it has been a failure, however, is pointless.

Onyewu is healthy now, and though he may not yet be completely confident of his knee, could certainly contribute to some team, somewhere. That somewhere won't be Milan, that much is clear. Although it's not all down to Gooch's abilities or lack of foresight, his time at Milan has not turned out well. It's time to move on, at least on loan, and there are interested parties according to various reports. January is almost here, so we cross our fingers one of those clubs is amenable to Onyewu.  It has been long enough since he played regularly that it almost doesn't matter his destination. USMNT fans would gladly line up to give Gooch a mighty push to Switzerland, England, or back to Belgium.

Playing time is paramount, not only for Onyewu's potential National Team contributions in 2011, but for stark reality that professionals only have so much time before their careers are done. It's difficult to imagine Gooch is content never playing in a meaningful game, to say nothing of the effect it must have on his confidence. If he was riding high and full of self-assuredness when he arrived in Milan back in 2009, he can only be on the low end of the scale now. The knee injury stopped being an excuse some time ago. If he's just not good enough, the shame of packing up and moving on should be mitigated by the obvious and simple fact that he just needs to play.

I give credit to Gooch for giving it a go, and I don't fault him for believing himself capable of being a success at AC Milan.  But the time eventually comes with cutting bait makes more sense than slamming repeatedly into the unmoving wall. With the opportunity available, the time is now. 

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