U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu will have two objectives when he takes the field in Mexico City on Aug. 12 in a World Cup qualifier between North America's most bitter rivals. The first: To lead the U.S. to its first win at Estadio Azteca, where the Yanks are 0-18-1. The second? To survive a cauldron unlike any other in sports—with 115,000 buzzing fans, choking smog and a lung-searing 7,200-foot altitude. "I've tried to explain that to people who say, You guys looked tired after 10 minutes," Onyewu says. "I'm like, You try playing in those conditions and having to wear oxygen masks at halftime to get air into your lungs."
Onyewu is already breathing rare air this summer. Last month, after the U.S.'s stunning run to the final of the Confederations Cup, he became the first American to join Italian giant AC Milan. Onyewu didn't see Mexico's 5--0 win over a U.S. reserve squad in the Gold Cup final on July 26 because he was playing for Milan in a preseason friendly. But that lopsided score will provide even more incentive for the U.S. A-teamers in their first game since the heartbreaking 3--2 loss to Brazil in South Africa. "I'm thrilled with how far we got in the Confederations Cup," Onyewu says, "but I'm not naive enough to think that just because of that, World Cup qualifying will be a cakewalk."
A 6'4", 210-pound centerback, Onyewu, 27, has been intimidating Mexican forwards for the U.S. ever since his famous stare down of Jared Borgetti in a 2005 World Cup qualifying victory. But Onyewu says the key to his rise in Europe—he spent five seasons at Belgium's Standard Li√®ge, which won the league title in 2008 and '09—has been to stop relying on his size and improve his positioning and footwork. No longer does he complain that referees give him yellow cards just because he's the biggest player on the field. "I looked in the mirror and said, Maybe you need to change some things about your game and not seem like so much of a physical threat," Onyewu says. "In the last three years I've done a 180 in that sense." As a result, Onyewu has cut down on his fouls and yellow cards while improving his ball distribution and vocal leadership. Those attributes were noticed by AC Milan. "When a player is with his national team and plays well against [Spain's Fernando] Torres and [Brazil's] Kakà," says Milan's coach, Leonardo, "that's the moment of the big test."
Onyewu admits he was concerned when Carlos Bocanegra, his longtime partner in the U.S. central defense, went down with a hamstring injury in early June. But it may have been a blessing in disguise: The new-look back line, with Onyewu and Jay DeMerit in the center, Jonathan Spector on the right and the now healthy Bocanegra on the left, was a revelation in South Africa. "We'd built such a chemistry that the center of the defense wasn't Carlos and Guchi but more like one player," says Onyewu. "But it didn't take long for me and Jay to mesh."
If the U.S. can continue that run in Mexico, then reaching a FIFA final and joining AC Milan may not be Onyewu's only historic feats this summer.
Now on SI.com
Follow Grant Wahl and Jonah Freedman from Mexico City next week at SI.com/bonus
The crowd of 93,137 that saw Barcelona beat the Galaxy 2--1 last Saturday at the Rose Bowl was the largest for a soccer match on U.S. soil since the 1994 World Cup final. The friendly kicked off a five-game North American tour by rivals Bar√ßa and Real Madrid, teams that made the biggest impact in European soccer in 2009. Behind Lionel Messi (below), Bar√ßa (which was set to play Seattle on Wednesday and Chivas Guadalajara on Saturday) won the Champions League and the Spanish title with unrivaled flair. Real Madrid (which plays Toronto on Friday and D.C. United on Sunday) responded by signing superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Kakà. It should make for an even more remarkable '09--10 season in Europe.
MICHAEL TURESKI/ICON SMI (ONYEWU)
SOLID IN STRIPES Onyewu (in red) got a taste of the Milan derby when AC Milan met Inter in Foxborough on July 26.
ROBERT MORA/MLS/GETTY IMAGES (MESSI)