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“Resurrected” Oguchi Onyewu ready for final push to World Cup 2014

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Oguchi Onyewu’s road to redemption has been a long, eventful and frustrating one. But the former U.S. men’s national team stalwart is close to fulfilling it.

With 77 days remaining until the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Onyewu’s plying his trade in the second-tier of English soccer and has his sights locked on the prize: get into Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. squad.

Currently leading Sheffield Wednesday’s charge up the Championship table from central defense, Onyewu, 31, is enjoying life in the England’s Steel City. He returned to England (following a loan move to Newcastle back in 2007) to kick start his career after stints with European giants such as AC Milan, Sporting Lisbon and Malaga have all been hampered by injury. Last October, Onyewu initially landed at Queens Park Rangers on a short-term deal, after Klinsmann had recommended his services to Harry Redknapp. But for all the talk QPR gave about giving Onyewu a chance, that never materialized as he stepped into a winning team that Redknapp didn’t want to tweak.

So, with less than six months to go until the World Cup, Onyewu knew he had to play regularly. That’s when English Championship side Wednesday stepped in.

“Going into the winter market I knew I had to find a situation where I had at least an opportunity to showcase what I could do… If I flopped and fell flat on my face, so be it. But I needed that opportunity,” Onyewu said, in an exclusive interview. “There were some options on the table, but Stuart Gray [Sheffield Wednesday’s head coach] contacted me and expressed his interest in wanting to help out my situation, and wanted me to help out with their situation. I spoke with U.S. international Stuart Holden about the club, who was on loan to Wednesday last year, and the move ticked every box I think needed to be ticked.”

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source: Getty Images
Onyewu in action at the 2013 Gold Cup for the U.S. as his towering presence in central defense could be called upon once again this summer.

Since he has joined Wednesday, the Owls have only conceded eight goals in the 12 games Gooch has appeared in, and the sleeping giant of English soccer has risen from relegation fodder to midtable security. There’s even talk of a late playoff push towards the Premier League from Gooch, but he’s just happy to be playing regularly and regaining his form.

“It is one thing to be playing regularly, that’s half the battle,” Onyewu said. “I think after that, you have to have good form. If you speak to anyone who has watched me play at Wednesday, I have been in very strong form and defensively we have been good. That can only help me in my efforts to make the final World Cup squad. It is Jurgen’s decision, but I’m sure he is keeping tabs on all of us.”

Speaking of Klinsmann, Onyewu revealed he’s a huge fan of the Germans tactical nous and feels close enough to the USMNT head coach to call him whenever he wants to talk. That fondness is obviously reciprocated, as Klinsmann made Onyewu the USA’s captain in a Gold Cup match against Cuba in 2013. And, of course, that close bond may enhance Onyewu’s chances of playing in his third-straight World Cup for the U.S., as experiences in 2006 and 2010 surely boost his chances.

After struggling through injury hit spells, being with clubs in financial turmoil and everything in between, Onyewu has been preparing for these next few months for a long time.

How huge would it be for him to make the USA’s final 23-man roster?

“It would be massive,” Onyewu said. “I set that as my goal, a year ago, to make this World Cup team. I’ve had to fight through a lot of injuries, fight through a lot of adversary playing wise and a lot of different pain. The character of a person or a player shows strongly when you can push through pain and into progress and not let your pain pull you back. I’ve accepted negative situations, but the person I am means I’m moving forward. I am going to do whatever I can to get to where I need to go.”

Gooch’s most recent appearance for the U.S. national team came in the 2-0 defeat to Ukraine on March 5, which was played in Cyprus after the political unrest forced the match to be switched. That peculiar situation aside, Onyewu showed up reasonably well in a makeshift backline which had been flung together by Klinsmann. Factor in that Ukraine is probably the top nation who didn’t make it to the World Cup, and Onyewu fared pretty well during his comeback game for the national team.

“It was a disappointing result,” Onyewu said. “A lot of players were playing with each other for the first time, and it was all a learning experience. The reality of the situation is that we don’t have a lot of time to learn. So you hope to learn quick from the mistakes and be able to rectify them.”

Asked whether or not he’d spoken with Klinsmann about his possible selection for the World Cup, and about what he needs to do to make it, Onyewu had the following to say.

source: AP
Is Oguchi Onyewu a must for the USA’s 2014 World Cup squad?

“There was no specific talk talk. I know what needs to be done, every player knows what needs to be done,” Onyewu said. “As a human being, you can only control factors that are within your realm of control. Jurgen controls the roster for the World Cup, what can I control? I can control my performance, my 90 minutes week in, week out at Sheffield. After that, there’s nothing for me to stress about. I am going to focus on finishing the season strong, maintaining the form I have and improving on it.”

The former Milan, Malaga, Metz, Standard Liege and Sporting defender knows his veteran status is key to the U.S., and that his 68 caps-worth of experience can be passed onto younger defenders such as Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, who have made the central defensive positions their own in recent months. With other central defenders Clarence Goodson, John Brooks, Tim Ream and Michael Orozco Fiscal all fighting for spots, Gooch’s ‘been there, done that, got the t-shirt’ past may hold the key.

“That veteran role is one I welcome and embrace,” Onyewu said. “If I can’t do that, then what player can do that? If a player that has two World Cups under his belt and has played in Europe his whole career can’t take on the leadership role, then I’m in the wrong profession. When I was a youngster at the World Cup, it definitely helped to be alongside a veteran like Eddie Pope who was a veteran and could direct me. Experience is invaluable. Hopefully that will work in my favor in my push to make the World Cup.”

Back to club soccer, and Onyewu confirmed his current deal with Wednesday runs out at the end of the 2013-14 season. Speaking of options beyond this campaign, the towering defender didn’t rule out a move to Major League Soccer in the future.

“I’ve never cancelled MLS out,” Onyewu said. “If it was an option, it would be just as much of an option as anywhere else in Europe, granted that they show me the proper interest and approach me in the manner that they want me to come back. At this point, that hasn’t been the case. I’m sure if that ever did happen, I’d review the situation thoroughly and take it seriously.”

With Onyewu’s career entering a pivotal stretch — the last few years of his playing days are in-sight and one final sojourn for the U.S. national team at a World Cup awaits — who have been some of the biggest influences on his career?

source: Getty Images
Onyewu’s glittering career is far from over, but one more World Cup appearance would put him in legendary company

“The first one is Francis De Taddeo, he was the French scout and the youth team coach at Metz in France. He was the one that scouted me and convinced the club that I had talent. He was a big springboard to my career,” Onyewu said. “Then there is Ariel Jacobs, the current coach of Valenciennes in France, he was the coach who gave me the first chance as a starter in Belgium. That was big. He had blind faith in me. Plus the entire club at Standard Liege were incredibly supportive and believed in the player that I could be when I was in Belgium.”

However, with Onyewu’s resurrection clear for everyone to see, the gentle giant reserved special praise for the man who has been instrumental at giving him a shot of making his third World Cup and donning the Stars and Stripes on the biggest stage of all, one more time.

“Stuart Gray has pretty much resurrected me, he took a chance on me,” Onyewu said, before pausing. “I hadn’t played in six months and he was confident in what I could do. He definitely resurrected the player that I am now.”

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)