Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo
The doctors have told Oguchi Onyewu that his knee is fixed, that he can jump and run and tackle and stretch without fear of aggravating the injury that ruined his club season. Onyewu believes their words, and he feels the new strength running through his joints as a long-lost level of fitness steadily returns.
Yet before he is ready to marshal the United States' backline at the World Cup – before he can convince doubters, colleagues and opponents alike that he is back to his best after seven months on the sideline – one more voice needs to be silenced. It is the voice within his own subconscious, the one that screams "Don't!" when he prepares to flex his left knee and rise up to head threatening balls out of the USA box.
It is that voice that remembers the fateful night at RFK Stadium last October, when Onyewu leaped toward the skies against Costa Rica and landed with his kneecap ripped from its tendons and embedded in his quadriceps.
U.S. 23-man roster predictions
Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Marcus Hahnemann (Wolverhampton Wanderers).
Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United), Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan), Clarence Goodson (IK Start), Jay DeMerit (Watford), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA), Heath Pearce (FC Dallas).
Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Michael Bradley (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Ricardo Clark (Eintracht Frankfurt), Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers), Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers), Jose Francisco Torres (Pachuca), Benny Feilhaber (AGF Aarhus).
Jozy Altidore (Villarreal), Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo), Herculez Gomez (Pachuca).
– Martin Rogers
And it is the same voice that appeared to surface Tuesday night when Onyewu faced a high defensive ball in the 44th minute against the Czech Republic at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.
Onyewu, seemingly mentally paralyzed, could barely get off the ground. Tomas Sivok rose above him and headed home the equalizer at 1-1, turning the tide of momentum in a friendly that the Czechs eventually won 4-2.
“I didn’t feel rusty at all,” Onyewu said of his 65 minutes of play Tuesday. “I don’t think there was any moment in the game that the speed got over me. I think I neutralized their strikers and they didn’t get anything on me.”
Onyewu doesn't do fear. He doesn't accept it as an excuse, and a major reason behind his comeback was because of positive thinking. But reacting to a ball in the box is all muscle memory. The human body's innate instinct to protect itself from harm can't necessarily be shrugged by thinking or reason.
Onyewu is a brave man and a fine character. His rehabilitation has been grueling and he's responded with admirable faith and resilience. However, the World Cup is unforgiving, and the pace of Wayne Rooney will test Onyewu's flexibility even further on June 12 in USA's opener against England, which has to like its chances of firing in high balls for towering striker Peter Crouch.
Onyewu still has more than two weeks to strengthen and prepare, but his knee is not the only defensive concern for Bob Bradley. Carlos Bocanegra has had hernia surgery, Jay DeMerit has suffered vision problems and Jonathan Bornstein continues to get mixed reviews at left back.
U.S. fans should not write off the Americans' chances, though. After all, Tuesday's match was an exhibition that served its purpose of giving players minutes while five key stars were strategically rested.
Results at the World Cup are what matters, not home friendlies.
- Oguchi Onyewu
- Carlos Bocanegra
- Jonathan Bornstein