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."