American Onyewu gets his first taste of Milan derby pressure
The World Football Challenge comes to an end on Sunday for two of Italy's biggest clubs, A.C. Milan and Inter Milan, as the two meet (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN360.com) in a mini Derby della Madonnina at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Naturally, the focus of most American eyes will be on Milan's American signing, Oguchi Onyewu, who will likely make his third appearance for the club in this final game. Thus far, considering the limited amount of time he has spent with the team, as well the language barrier, Onyewu has played well -- showing flashes of his aerial ability and overall physical strength. In Serie A, however, these skills alone will not suffice. Onyewu will have to become better with his feet and more adept at starting counter attacks and building from the back line.
Fortunately for Onyewu, he will get to work with Alessandro Nesta, who, when healthy, is still among the best defenders in the world. Nesta's surgical tackles, ability to advance the ball like a classic sweeper and his sense of position on the field are second to none. Onyewu would benefit immensely from spending his early practice sessions shadowing the Italian defender, and trying to soak in as much of his knowledge as possible.
Looking beyond practice sessions, it's possible that Onyewu will get some serious playing time at the Italian club early in the season. In fact, the situation at the club as it stands right now seems perfectly suited to the American. With Nesta seemingly healthy again after a series of injuries, and Thiago Silva's registration finally completed and eligible to play, Onyewu is unlikely to start. However, the retirement of the legendary Paolo Maldini opens up an opportunity for Onyewu to take over as Milan's third option at center back.
Chelsea vs. Club America
Further helping Onyewu's chances of getting playing time are the limited options the team has at the position in terms of depth. Daniele Bonera, who at one time seemed to have a bright future with the Rossoneri, has struggled to find an identity at the club. Giuseppe Favalli, the former Inter man, is 37 years old and showing it. And Kakha Kaladze, who is now entering his ninth season with the team, demonstrated last season that he is no longer a viable option after some disastrous performances in crucial games. These shortcomings should open the door for Onyewu. Throw in Gooch's strength in the air on set pieces, something Milan lacks outside of newly appointed captain Massimo Ambrosini, and it seems likely the American will get his first taste of Calcio sooner rather than later.
Of course, there is always the issue of pressure. How will Onyewu handle playing on one of the biggest clubs in the world? How will he respond to the expectations and hopes of American fans who wish him to succeed at one of soccer's highest levels? And should he get significant playing time and stumble along the way, can he handle the stinging criticisms of an often overbearing Italian press? Tune in during the Serie A season to find out.
However, we won't necessarily have to wait until the start of the Serie A season to get an early sense of Onyewu's ability to handle these pressures. Sunday should also offer us a good preview, as even a preseason Milan derby is sure to inspire quality starting lineups, as well as quality play, on both sides. Considering his experience playing in Europe and strong play at the Confederations Cup, there's no reason to believe that Onyewu cannot become a solid contributor to a Milan team that remains very much in transition.
Zach Benabid is an assistant editor for ESPN.com