Yanks Abroad caught up with Oguchi Onyewu this past weekend when his Royal Excelsior Virton team played in Mouscron in Belgium. Having retired from the game in 2018 after a 15-year career, Onyewu recently took up the post as Virton’s secretary general. The former US international fielded questions from fans ranging from his playing career to the future of the USMNT.

With so many great questions and interesting answers, it was hard to narrow it down to just XI however. So we did cheat a bit and added some extra questions for the big American to answer. 

I. What were the highlights of your career? – Sarah Orme, Tyler, TX

The USA highlights were my first World Cup in ’06 and my first Gold Cup actually in ’05. I think my first Gold Cup was when I cemented myself in Bruce’s (Arena, national team coach) eyes as a potential starting center back for the team because I was very young amidst all the other center back options. And then the World Cup obviously. For any player to play in their first World Cup is memorable. My family was there and they got to see it though we didn’t do as well as we wanted to but nonetheless we still competed in the World Cup for our country so that’ something special.

II. Which league did you enjoy playing in the most? – Mike Brown, Winslow, NJ

Portugal! For one, Sporting (Clube de Portugal) is an unbelievable club. The supporters are insane, insanely supportive. They love you. If you treat them well, they treat you well. I could go to Lisbon now and people would still love me from knowing that I gave everything while I was there. The competition is really good though people doubt it because it’s not Spain but it’s a really competitive league at a real competitive level. I just enjoyed Portugal. Obviously, Belgium was my platform to kind of prove and show case myself but I loved Portugal.

III. What was your go-to pre-game ritual? – Rico L., Kansas City, KS

Always took a nap. Showered before the game. Played my music. I always had my play list that I always had to start at a certain time in order to be able to finish it before warm-ups at a certain time. Then obviously praying before games, for safety, for no injuries to myself or anybody on the field. Stuff like that.

IV.  If you had to go back to Milan and your decision not to accept a paycheck after you got hurt, would you change your mind? – Matt G. Prairie Village, KS

No. I wouldn’t change my mind. Every decision I’ve made has led me to where I was supposed to be. I didn’t do that impulsively so it was the right decision for me to make.

V. Love you as a commentator, better than Twellman and Lalas. What do you like most about this new career? – Pat O, Overland Park, KS

(Laughs) Ah, I’ve got a couple of new careers! Commentating is fun when you’re enjoying the people that you’re doing it with. Obviously I have a prior relationship with Clint (Dempsey) and Charlie (Davies) and Kate (Abdo), to be fair. The chemistry on set is not forced. We’re just enjoying each other and just talking, so there’s nothing scripted which is what everyone likes, that’s why it seems so authentic and kind of raw.

I enjoy it. I think the viewers are seeing something different than they’re used to seeing from commentators. For the most part, we’ve been getting good reviews.

Asked for further explanation for those who haven’t seen the commentary team, Onyewu replied:

Basically we do post-game, half time and pre-game analysis of the games. We speak about their form of play, we speak about what went wrong, what went right, we analyze some of their weaknesses and strengths in the last games and how we think the games are going to play out. Then there are some fun parts where we can take jabs at each other and make fun of each other’s opinions because… I think that’s one of the things that makes the four of us great together is that we don’t have the same opinions; we have different perspectives. Clint has his own way of presenting it, Charlie has his own way, I have my own way and I think our differences make it strong.

VI. How bad did you want to punch Jared Borgetti in the face during that famous stare down (in 2005’s USA vs Mexico game)? – Ryan W, Olathe, KS

(laughing) I didn’t want to punch him at all to be fair. The stare down, it’s funny… everyone said that I wanted to fight him. I didn’t. I was waiting for him to do something and then I would have reacted.

Thinking back about that; I had a lot of respect for Borgetti. Obviously everybody knew who he was in Mexican soccer history. He was really frustrated in that game and I remember the moment and he ran up on me like he was going to do something and I just waited. In my head I was thinking, do it. I think he had second thoughts after he came up real close (to me). It was funny, because I looked at him and he saw my look, so I guess I did enough.

VII. What do you think made you stand out as a kid in order to go through the ranks, get seen, get recruited? – James H., Wisconsin

There’s no right answer for that. To be honest, there were a lot of times where I did not stand out and there were a couple of times in my youth career where I got cut from teams or I didn’t get selected, so you don’t always stand out. I think it’s the persistent ones that actually push through the barriers. I made myself better by failing, at times. I started to stand out only after a couple of failures.

Most of the times you don’t learn lessons from always achieving. I almost quit soccer a couple of times when I was young, so its not all the glitz and gold. People see the end results but they don’t actually see the process that you go through.

VIII. Are you optimistic about the current USMNT? Will they qualify for the World Cup? – Joe Desantis, Jersey City, NJ

I’m optimistic. I think they have the ability to qualify. Now we all know that in sports ability doesn’t always dictate result but in my opinion and I’ve said this on air and I’ve said this on record, in my opinion this is the most talented national team we’ve ever had in history in terms of talent and potential. Now, are they going to basically show their potential and do everything; that remains to be seen. They’re still young. We all hope and we get frustrated when they don’t play well because we know that they can. So, I’m optimistic but I’m also patient because I know as a player that its not automatic. It takes some time to do that stuff so, I’ve got my feet on the ground but I’m looking to the stars.

IX. Great job as a commentator!  In your opinion is Gregg Berhalter making his job more difficult by calling up so many players? – Bill Johnson, Reno, NV

He’s calling up so many players because he’s trying to make his life easier.  Especially this summer with two different groups.  Nations League.  Gold Cup.  But he almost had to because the European clubs were asking for their players to come back because they couldn’t stay there the whole summer like it was back in the day when we played inthe Gold Cup. Now they had another tournament prior to that. I think he’s doing the best that he can with the limitations that he has.  I know Covid kind of hit him with some adversity.  Christian (Pulisic) was out with Covid. Zack Steffen was out with Covid. 

But I do think with the domestic players, that there is a talented group so I think he’s identified the players that he feels will be able to help him through the qualifying campaign.  And we saw that come to life at the last game of this first three game series in Honduras.  It was a very odd game for them to shine the way they did but they did; they came through with 3 goals in the second half.  Like I said, they have that potential there, but are they going to realize it every time they’re on the field?  We all hope so but the reality is that it might not happen every time. 

X. In a bold move (Landon) Donovan’s SD Loyal team (playing in the USL Championship) walked off the pitch last year after a racial slur was yelled at one of the players (by an opposing player).  Would you have wanted your team to walk off and forfeit the match, potentially depriving you of one of your championships in Belgium, when (Jelle) van Damme also racially insulted you?

I can’t comment on that one because I don’t know the specific details.  At the end of the day, that was his decision.  I would have acted in the moment, I can’t say I would or wouldn’t have.  I don’t know how it was taken or actually what was said, to be honest.  I think it was a homophobic word or phrase said to the player.  I don’t think it was racist; I think it was homophobic.  So I can’t really comment.  I haven’t been placed in that situation to actually know I would have reacted. 

XI.  You’ve put up with racism on and off the field. Do you feel that other than players taking a knee, nothing has changed? – Aron Hess, Cresswell, OR

Racism. How do you change racism? Racism is not an act, it’s a mentality. And you cannot change a mentality by certain gestures. At the end of the day you can’t change somebody’s way of thinking, they have to change it for themselves.  But what you can do is penalize them so that they don’t have to adversely show it. I think that’s the most important. Whatever you feel, feel how you want to feel, nobody’s going to change your life but there is no way you should express that on the sports front or even in real life.  So until FIFA and all the leagues around the world start penalizing either players or fans for acting in racist ways, I don’t think we’re going to see the changes that we want to see.

Bonus

There were some questions from fans in the UK asking about Onyewu’s time in England while at Newcastle, so for a bonus, here are his replies to those.

Why didn’t you stay longer at Newcastle?

Newcastle was a loan. It was just a loan from Liege, so it wasn’t a permanent transfer. Obviously I came back to Liege and we won the championship the next year so no looking back on that. I think everything works out.

Who is the best player that you played with at Newcastle? And the worst?

Obefemi Martins was sick at Newcastle. No comment on the worst player. But the best player (overall) that I ever played with was Ronaldinho. He’s a special player. A lot of people would say the same; he’s the best player they’ve ever played with.

How chaotic was it during your spell at Newastle?

It was a turning point of the club. At the time they had Glen Roeder (as coach), rest his soul; he passed away recently but there was a lot of turmoil with talk about changing presidents. At that time there was the same owner as there is now. There were a lot of good things in the club that couldn’t shine through because of some of the imbalances, I would say. So a lot of times that kind of seeped through on the field and then the team didn’t play to its best ability.

But there were a lot of good players on the team, if you think about it. Michael Owen was there. Nicky Butt was there. Obefemi Martins was there. Shola Ameobi was there. Charles N’Zogbiawas there. (Celestine) Babayaro was there. They had a lot of great players on the team but it was just that the results didn’t fall.

By Michael Adubato

The old man of Yanks-Abroad, having been around since the very beginning in 2004, Known as the resident Belgian expert since that’s where he has lived for a couple of decades. Over the years he has interviewed Nats such as Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, Oguchi Onyewu, Jozy Altidore and Tim Weah, to name a few. When not working the day job, he can often be found in stadiums around Europe, watching games from the top flight to the lower leagues. To prove that he is not just a pretty face, Mike received a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Maryland and a Masters from the University of Oklahoma. Boomer Sooner! On a non-soccer note, Adubato has just released a book of poetry from his travels, Missing the Exit, published by Broken Keys Publishing in Ottawa, Canada. So that must make him the YA poet laureate! You can grab your copy on Amazon.com, order online and pick it up and Barnes & Noble or get an e-copy at various outlets.

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