Onyewu feels free _ and liberated

PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) — Oguchi Onyewu feels free. Make that liberated.

Well, both.

He signed a three-year contract with AC Milan last summer, then appeared in just one competitive game before blowing out a knee while off with the U.S. national team.

"Obviously this season has been lost with me," he said.

Rehab wasn't enough. He wanted to make a grand gesture.

So on Monday, four days past his 28th birthday, the American defender extended his contract for one season — at absolutely no cost to the team. Essentially, he is paying Milan back for the year he didn't play.

Milan called the decision "exemplary" and said he "deserves sincere congratulations."

"It was just a sign of good faith," he said Thursday. "The club was able to stick by me" and he wanted to "show my dedication back to them."

In the world of sports that sticks out, but then again, so does the 6-foot-4 Onyewu, who stands on the U.S. back line as if he were a skyscraper.

Landon Donovan didn't want Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena to think his national teammate was setting a trend that would ripple back to the shores of Major League Soccer.

"You can tell Bruce," Donovan said, "that I'm not playing for free anytime soon."

Onyewu is the biggest uncertainty among the regular U.S. starters. He hasn't played in a game since Oct. 14, when he tore his left patellar tendon. He maintains he's match fit — denying the appearance that he favored one leg Thursday. While the rest of the team jogged around the field at the end of training, he ran wind sprints up the center.

But he'll have to prove his form starting Tuesday night, when the U.S. plays the Czech Republic in a World Cup warmup at East Hartford, Conn.

"From Day One, people were like, 'Oh, Onyewu's going to miss the World Cup.' And I'd read it, and then turn the page to the funny section," he said. "I always say that I know who I am and I know what I'm capable of and nobody from the outside can tell me what I'm capable of doing besides me."

Sometime he sounds a bit like Reggie Jackson, and he has a swagger about him, a big-man presence that gives teammates confidence and has been missing in his absence.

"I'm sure you read blogs and you read magazine articles or newspapers articles, and a lot of people are saying that I won't come back like I was," he said. "I'm going to go out and agree with them. I won't come back as I was. I'm going to come back stronger."

His injury came following a corner kick, when he was backpedaling and fell to the ground during a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica at Washington's RFK Stadium. He felt as if his left kneecap had migrated to his quadriceps.

"I actually thought that one of the Costa Rican players kicked me in my hamstring," he said. "I could have sworn until I saw the video that somebody kicked me. And when I landed, you know, I was looking for the referee, because I thought I got fouled."

He worked during the early part of his rehabilitation with Charlie Davies, the American forward who that same week was nearly killed in a car crash, sustaining injuries that Davies couldn't overcome in time for the World Cup.

"We kind of motivated each other to get back to where we are today," Onyewu said. "There was a lot of, you know, soul searching and what have you because it's not easy to watch your teams play when you watch on TV."

AC Milan executive Adriano Galliani demanded compensation from the U.S. Soccer Federation, which raised eyebrows given that the club is owned by Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. But Onyewu said nothing ever became of that.

Teammates are counting on a healthy Onyewu to help stop Wayne Rooney, Steve Gerrard, Frank Lampard and other English stars in the Americans' World Cup opener on June 12.

"He's a physical presence. He's a dominant figure," midfielder Maurice Edu said. "He's also a leader on the field."

Teammates look up to him, and not just because he towers over them.

"He's been a guy who's played is just about all the big games for the national team in the past six, seven, eight years," midfielder Michael Bradley said.

Onyewu still is angry about the 2006 World Cup, when the U.S. failed to advance from the first round. With the score tied in first-half injury time, German referee Markus Merk awarded Ghana a penalty kick when Onyewu jostled with 5-foot-8 Razak Pimpong for a header at the edge of the penalty area.

"There was an injustice," Onyewu said. "I still to this day don't know where the foul came from."

Now he has a chance to make up for it. He's worked since last October to get ready for the World Cup. The three upcoming exhibition games are a chance to prove he's back.

"I'm sure," he said, "there's going to be a little nerves for me, you know, the first minute or two. But after that, you know, you're going to see the same Gooch that you saw seven months ago."


NOTES: D Carlos Bocanegra (abdominal strain) and D Chad Marshall (slight hamstring strain) joined full training for the first time this week. F Eddie Johnson (hamstring strain) participated in full training except for the fitness run. D Jay DeMerit (abdominal strain) participated in part of training. The team is off Friday.