Former U.S. Men's National Team defender Oguchi Onyewu spoke exclusively with players and staff of the Columbus Crew SC Academy to discuss his professional career path and to answer questions from Academy players.
Onyewu started the call with a brief background on his youth development, saying he had the option to go pro at the age of 17 alongside the likes of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. The former centerback stressed that each path is unique to each player and how that notion led him to Clemson University for two years before signing professionally in France in 2002 with FC Metz, who was promoted from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1 following Onyewu's first season.
The defender, initially noted for his physicality and size, spoke about the challenges that that first year in France presented, particularly when it came to adjusting to the technical aspects of European football.
"It was a big leap in regards to the technical side of things from college to professional, especially professionally in France. France is known for their development academies. There were things that, when I got there, were second nature for them, whether it be how they control the ball, how they open up their body – different things that I wasn’t taught," he told the Academy.
He continued to explain how having an instinctual sense of determination and the mental wherewithal to persevere through adversity is what separates a sustained, "real" professional from others.
"I learned that if I wanted to succeed, I had to work on these technical things that I just didn’t have access to growing up. ... I needed to focus on the tactical side and learn to work smart and not hard all the time. I needed to learn the European game, the technical side, get better with my feet, passing.
"Up until that point, I could rely on my other strengths, but once you get to that point, that other level, your weaknesses are exposed tenfold. I tell kids to get good at what you do well and get a lot better at what you do poorly."
Next, Onyewu made his way to Standard Liège in Belgium and finished atop the table of the Juliper Pro League - Belgium's top division - in 2007/08, in addition to being named to the League's Best XI. After that, he was loaned to English Premier League side, Newcastle United. A less than ideal stint in northern England provided critics all the fodder they needed, which in turn Onyewu used as motivation.
Later on, his commitment paid off as he earned a contract with A.C. Milan, something he saw as redemption for all the cuts when he was younger, he said.
Three months into his contract, however, he blew out his knee.
Still, Onyewu recovered in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa just seven months later, his second career World Cup call-up.
Each second of those games was pressure-packed, he said, and were the biggest moments in his career.
"The World Cup is the biggest stage for any player. ... Literally every second of every game means something. That's pressure. How do you absorb it? How do you let go and just play your game? It was a great experience and to do it once, let alone twice. I really treasure that experience," he said.
After stints in Portugal, Spain, England, and lastly with MLS preceded his retirement in 2018. At the conclusion of his back story, Onyewu hammered the point that success is never linear, and it's always relative.
"In life, you can only control what’s in your control. ... For me, that’s why I feel that my career was a huge success because the hurdles I was able to overcome despite the roadblocks that were thrown in front of me.
"I think success is relative and it's very specific to individuals. If you ask me, I think I was successful because my career was significant to the ones that mattered: myself, my family, and my teammates."
As part of a Q&A session to close the conversation, Crew SC Academy player Elton Chifamba, who came to Columbus from Harare, Zimbabwe at the age of four and will join the U-18/19 team once the new season starts, posed the question: "What is some advice you would have for young, aspiring pros, like us?"
Onyewu's primed his response with the following:
"Before you get advice for how to be a good pro, you have to understand what being a pro means. It means complete and utter sacrifice. It’s easy to understand sacrifice until you’re confronted with it."
He continued, explaining the particular role one's mental capacity plays in the equation.
"I think success had to do with a lot of different factors. It had to do with preparation at the right moment, it had to do with the right people seeing me at the right time, it had to do with my readiness, my mental stability as well. That’s a huge part of the game that a lot of people don’t consider as well.
"There’s a lot of players that are unbelievable until a certain level of pressure is bestowed upon them and they just crumble. They don’t know how to deal with the pressure. They mentally can’t take the pressure of whatever they’re given. That is the daily constant of being a pro. That is the definition of being a pro."
Notably, the ability to recreate your game depending upon the team and the stage at which you're at in your career is critical to long-term success, he said.
"The day you sign is the day someone is trying to take your spot. That’s going to happen until you stop playing. If you want to be a pro and continue that, you have to find ways to make yourself better than the next, better than the younger person. There’s always going to be younger, faster, stronger.
"How do you make yourself more valuable? How do you reinvent your game to be better than you were in 2019. How you make yourself in 2021 better than you were in 2020? That’s what being a pro is. That’s the advice I give you."