US defender Oguchi Onyewu, 17 Jun 2010
US defender Oguchi Onyewu, 17 Jun 2010

Oguchi Onyewu is the anchor of the U.S. World Cup soccer team's defense. VOA has this look at the one American player who has African roots.

The first thing you might notice is that his name is not typically American. While Oguchi Onyewu was born in Washington, DC, his parents are Nigerian. They came to the United States from Nigeria to study at Howard University in Washington, DC. They ended up settling in suburban Maryland where Onyewu played soccer in high school.

The second thing you notice is that Onyewu, 28, does not look like a typical American soccer player. In fact, he looks more like an American-style football player. He weighs 95 kilograms and is 1.93 meters tall, making him the tallest player, other than a goalkeeper, to play for the U.S. national team. The central defender has been described as one of the most intimidating soccer players in the world.

After two years of college, Oguchi Onyewu, whose nickname is "Gooch," left the U.S.A. to play in Europe. He has spent most of his professional career at Standard Liege in Belgium. But after a good showing at last year's Confederation Cup here in South Africa, where the U.S. team reached the final against Brazil, Gooch was signed by Italian power AC Milan.

His first season with Milan ended barely before it began. Onyewu had appeared in only one Champions League match before he suffered a devastating knee injury while on national team duty. Ironically, it came in Washington, in the U.S. team's final World Cup qualifier last October. Onyewu missed the entire Italian season and heard critics who said he would never be fit in time to play in this World Cup.

"You know, I said it from the beginning in interviews weeks ago that I would be ready. It's funny when everyone is like, 'Ah, you know, he says he'll be ready, but that's just his competitive spirit talking.' But finally to, you know, in a sense silence the naysayers, it feels good," he said. "It gets them off my back. You know it's a good feeling."

Onyewu says because of his background, it is extra special to compete in the first-ever World Cup in Africa.

"First of all, I'm thrilled to be able to take part in my second World Cup and represent America, and to be part of history, you know, with this being the first World Cup on African soil," he added. "But aside from that, obviously there's added motivation, added pride just because I am Nigerian and my family comes from this continent. But that all aside, I know I am here with the U.S.A., and I'm here to do business with America, so that's first and foremost."

"Gooch," who is fluent in French, says so far this South African World Cup has been a great experience.

"It's a pleasure to see all around us the enthusiasm from everybody, Africans and non-Africans alike. I say this World Cup is one, if the only event, that the world can come together but be separated at the same time, you know what I mean? Come together in the sense that we're all in good spirits and separated at the same time, because everybody's rooting for different sides, different countries," he said. "But it's a great feeling, and it's a pleasure and a privilege to be part of this opportunity."

Onyewu says even with the beard he has been growing for this World Cup, he is getting used to being recognized.

"Last summer [in the Confederations Cup] we had a good run. And I think I did well in the tournament; so maybe I stand out a little bit more. Or maybe because my name is not as normal as everybody else's; or they can identify with my name more so because it's authentically African; or because I'm Nigerian, whatever it is," said Onyewu. "Even around here [at the U.S. team's World Cup base near Johannesburg] the people that work at the hotels, or whatever, seem to smile whenever I walk around. But you know it's a good feeling. I feel good here and, you know, hopefully this continues.".

Oguchi Onyewu will feel even better if the U.S. soccer team defeats Algeria Wednesday in Pretoria; a victory that would send the Americans into the second round at this World Cup.

Just last month, Oguchi Onyewu's deal with AC Milan was extended by one year, keeping him under contract with the Italian club through the end of the 2012-13 season. In a rare move because he was sidelined this past season, Onyewu decided to request that his one-year extension include no salary.