Reenergized Oguchi Onyewu ready to keep 'silencing the critics' in DC homecoming

Reenergized Oguchi Onyewu ready to keep 'silencing the critics' in DC homecoming

CHESTER, Pa. — Oguchi Onyewu isn't sure yet how many of his family members will be in attendance at RFK Stadium for Saturday's game against D.C. United (7:00 p.m., TCN). But the first-year Philadelphia Union defender is guessing there will be quite a few.

"You can definitely expect a double-digit number," Onyewu said after practice Thursday, before adding with a smile: "If not triple."

That makes sense considering Onyewu grew up in the D.C. suburbs and used to train in the summers with United as he was beginning his long professional career overseas. And as his time in Europe drew to a close, the 34-year-old center back admitted that D.C. United could have worked well as a soft landing spot, especially when you consider that head coach Ben Olsen was a former teammate of Onyewu's on the U.S. national team. 

But when it came down to it, Onyewu never got a chance to play for his hometown team. And now he wants to do the next best thing: beat 'em.

"For me, D.C. was always an option," Onyewu said. "It would have made sense, in terms of proximity and my roots. But the reality of the situation is the club never approached me for an opportunity like that."

"Right now, I'm more than happy in Philly," he added. "This is probably the best situation MLS-wise I could have ended up in. We have a great training facility, a great stadium, great fans — and outside of that, I have a number of friends on the team I've known prior. The locker room is probably the best locker room I've ever been a part of in my career."

The fact that Onyewu calls the Union locker room the best he's ever been a part of is quite the statement, considering he's played for more than 10 teams during a 16-year professional career. And his success with the US national team as a key player in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups is well-documented too.

Still despite his past success, there were questions coming into the 2017 MLS season as to how the veteran center back would fit in during his first spell in MLS — and also how he'd be able to perform after missing more than a year due to injury.

To both points, Union head coach Jim Curtin thinks he's thus far passed with flying colors.

"I think he's been excellent," Curtin said. "I think if you take each game, he's faced a different challenge and has done really well. … He's worked very hard to get his body back to full fitness and to be able to go 90 [minutes], 90, 90 three games in a row, we're really happy with where he’s at."

At some point soon, Curtin will be faced with a tough decision as second-year center back Joshua Yaro is progressing nicely from shoulder surgery and could supplant Onyewu in the starting lineup.

But at the moment, Curtin is more focused as to how Onyewu has interacted with Yaro and other young defenders. How the playing time shakes out with everyone healthy is almost a secondary concern.

"Gooch has a ton of experience and has done a lot for Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty," Curtin said. "Maybe people don't see it from the outside. But I'd have to say Jack's growth as a player has been accelerated really quickly. He's a guy we now pick for our 18 and part of the credit needs to go to Gooch for talking with him, keeping him going."

Curtin also has liked the on-field partnership Onyewu has honed with fellow starter Richie Marquez through the first three games, calling the 34-year-old "our anchor back there."

But after a shutout on opening day, the Union have given up two goals in each of the past two games and are still searching for the first win of the season as they prepare to take on a D.C. team that will be hungry to score their first goal of the season.

How does Gooch assess both his own performance and that of his new team's so far?

"I don't feel like I've hit my peak performance yet," Onyewu said. "That's to be understood. It's early in the season and the reality of the situation is I had a year off playing due to injury. But I don't think there's any visible rust as people would have probably assumed and I read. For whatever reason they made assumptions early on. But I think thus far I've kind of silenced the critics.

"Right now, it's up to us to kind of turn the corner on the season," he added, "and start getting some wins."

Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

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Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

CHESTER, Pa. — It’s almost too fitting that Brian Carroll has decided to become a financial planner in Indianapolis.

For the retiring Union midfielder (see story), it’s a perfectly unassuming job for a perfectly unassuming guy. Someone who, without shin guards and cleats, always looked more like a business manager than a pro athlete anyway. An underappreciated, underrated, never-flashy player who was damn good at soccer and leaves the sport as a “pioneer for the game in this country,” according to Union head coach Jim Curtin.

“Having the opportunity to coach him here in Philadelphia, being around him, to work with him, it’s been a real honor for me,” Curtin said Thursday. “Once you reflect back on his career, the trophies that he’s won, the caps he’s received for the U.S. national team — he’s a true professional, a guy who always played the game with a smile on his face but also was kind of a quiet killer on the field.”

Carroll’s pedigree certainly is impressive. Two-time MLS Cup champion. Four straight Supporters’ Shields. Nine straight playoff appearances. Fourth-most MLS appearances in league history. Sixth-most minutes.

But when you stack him up against some other guys on the all-time leaderboard of games played (Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Steve Ralston, even his brother-in-law Chad Marshall), it’s fair to say he doesn’t get the same kind of national recognition. What gives?

“Because he goes about his business in such a quiet way, he isn’t a guy who is loud on the field or loud in the locker room, he’s just a lead-by-example kind of guy, and often those guys don’t get a whole lot of credit,” Curtin said. “[But] he’s a guy who anybody speaks about him in the game has nothing but positive things to say. Everybody has a Brian Carroll story, and they’re all positive. There are not a lot of guys that end their career with that — with not one person that you would ever meet that would say a negative thing about them. He’s been a guy who’s gone about his business the right way — an example of so many young players to learn from in our country.”

Even if he might not always get league-wide attention, anyone who ever played with Carroll certainly knows what he’s all about. Five years ago, then-Union teammate Danny Califf said he was “one of the most underrated guys in the league, and he has been for a long time,” before adding: “He’s happy to sit back and be in the playoffs and win championships — and let everyone else talk about the other guys that don’t.” Two years later, when Carroll was the team’s captain, Amobi Okugo revealed that everyone called him “The Iron Man.” 

But for Carroll, always a picture of humility, none of that stuff ever really mattered. And if he did fly under the radar, that's just fine with him, too.

“I think I have some athletic ability, thank goodness, but I’m not the fastest, the tallest or the strongest,” said Carroll, who remarkably was never shown a red card in any of the 370 games he played. “What I brought was consistency, work ethic and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability and me doing that enabled other guys to fulfill their roles and succeed at their roles. I’m happy and thankful that I was able to lead my team to some trophies, whether it be Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup.”

It’s a testament to his work ethic that the 36-year-old defensive midfielder continued to play at a high level as recently as last season. And although his playing time completely dried up this year, he holds no ill will toward the Union about that. If anything, he’s enjoyed the chance to step into a new role that’s involved coaching up his younger teammates at practice.

“I knew coming in these past couple of years my role was gonna change and be more supportive, still helping to lead,” he said. “One thing leads to another last year and I was a little bit more involved than what was planned. Then this year, it just kind of went according to plan — supporting the guys and helping them out in any way I can.”

Because of how he filled that role, many people speculated that he would transition directly into coaching or into a front office job. But while Carroll said he explored that path, he said the best thing for him to do with his family right now is to move to Indianapolis, where his wife is from.  

Of course, that could always change.

“There’s always a job here with the Philadelphia Union if he wants one,” Curtin said. “I know he’s moving into the financial world. I’m hoping he’s not sitting in a cubicle but if he is sitting in a cubicle, the door’s always open to come back here on the field to be a coach because he has so much more to give.”

He still has a little more to give as a player, too. Although he hasn’t played all season, Curtin said Carroll will likely play in Sunday’s 2017 finale vs. Orlando City SC — for his 371st and final MLS appearance.

“I think it’s important for him to get on the field, so we will find a way to make that happen,” Curtin said. “I kind of half-joked about starting him and seeing how long he could possibly last being out a lot this year. But he’s been sharp in training the past couple of weeks, so it’s great. 

“He’s an experienced guy, so no matter where you put him on the field, he deserves for our fans to give him a proper send-off. And I know they will.”

Union suspend Keegan Rosenberry for 'inappropriate' tweet

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Union suspend Keegan Rosenberry for 'inappropriate' tweet

Keegan Rosenberry’s nightmare season has come to an end. 

The second-year right back, who has floated in and out of favor with Union manager Jim Curtin throughout the 2017 campaign, has been suspended for the final game of the regular season on Sunday against Orlando City, for what Curtin deemed “unprofessional” behavior on social media.

“His activity on social media prior to kickoff was inappropriate,” Curtin said. “It’s something that won’t be tolerated. It's a decision that he made, one that he’ll be held accountable for. It’s unprofessional and disrespectful to the guys in the locker room.” 

Shortly before the Union’s 3-2 loss to the Chicago Fire last Sunday, in which he wasn’t tapped to start, Rosenberry tweeted a photo of himself on the bench with an unhappy look on his face and the headline, “(Need some caption help)”. The image, which also included defender Richie Marquez, was viewed as a veiled comment on his lack of playing time. 

It’s since been deleted.

“He’s a great young player that I think will learn from this,” Curtin continued. “But as professionals, we are held to a standard. To do that right before kickoff is not something [Union sporting director Earnie Stewart] and I will tolerate.”

It’s been a rough year for Rosenberry, who, after playing every minute of the regular season in 2016, was benched in favor of a more defensively stout Ray Gaddis after the Union’s first six games. The 23-year-old 2016 Rookie of the Year runner-up only managed five more starts and eight appearances following his early-season struggles. 

Although he made a five-game comeback through August and September, an ankle injury knocked him back out. He finished the season with one assist and four shots.

Now, he’ll miss the finale.