Onyewu a fan favorite on return trip to South Africa

US defender returns after breakout effort at Confed Cup

JOHANNESBURG – The US became fan favorites during their run to the Confederations Cup final here in South Africa last summer, but one player in particular stood out.

Ask most South Africans who followed that tournament about their favorite US player, and you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s Oguchi Onyewu, the towering 6-foot-4, 210-pound defender who is the son of Nigerian immigrants. And Gooch admits he gets a little more attention while he’s here.

“I stand out a little more,” he said Wednesday. “Maybe because my name is not as normal as everybody else’s or maybe they can identify with my name because it’s authentically African, or because I’m Nigerian.”

Onyewu was both figuratively and literally huge for the US during Confed Cup, stifling Spain in an upset in the semis and then nearly toppling Brazil in the final. Those heroic performances helped the Washington, D.C., native land a surprise move to AC Milan last July. And he’s thrilled to return to scene of the crime for this World Cup.

“It’s added motivation and added pride because I am Nigerian,” he said. “My family comes from this continent.”

Getting back here hasn’t been easy, however. Onyewu has put himself through a rigorous rehab assignment after suffering a partially torn patellar tendon in the US’ final World Cup qualifier last October. When he finally took the field on May 25 in a friendly against the Czech Republic in East Hartford, Conn. – his first game action in eight months – his play prompted more questions about his readiness.

But Onyewu says he never doubted he’d be ready, and put in a solid 90-minute performance in the US’ draw with England last weekend that was satisfying on a number of levels.

“I said from the beginning I’d be ready,” he said. “To finally ... silence the naysayers, it feels good. It gets them all back, at least for one game.”

But will he be ready to go another 90 against Slovenia on Friday? Onyewu said he has no doubts. In the meantime, he’ll just enjoy the smiling faces who seem to recognize him.

“Even around here, people that work at the hotels or whatever seem to smile whenever I walk around,” he said, then added with a smile: “Maybe they’re scared of me, I don’t know.”

MLSsoccer.com managing editor Jonah Freedman is reporting on the World Cup from South Africa all this month.