The Keeper’s Ball: Big Club or Small Club?

One of the more interesting sentiments from USA fans following the news that Oguchi Onyewu has signed for Italian giants AC Milan, is the notion that “playing time” is more important than a “big transfer”.

It’s an interesting dilemma that seems to plague American fans with every overseas signing – is [insert player name] going to play? Or is he going to ride the bench?

This train of thought brings us to the question of the week: Is it better for an American starter (we’ll say Top 15 player for the sake of argument) to "make a move to a top-notch club” or “make a move to a small club where playing time is more certain”?

The knee-jerk reaction for almost any American fan is "Obviously he needs to playing more, so make the move to the smaller club”. As a fanbase, we’ve  developed this idea that playing time, no matter what the level of play, is far more important than the quality of the club.

There are already plenty of fans voicing their concern that Onyewu has hurt his chances at development because Milan won’t start him regularly.

Ignoring the details about how Onyewu is plenty good enough to play the majority of the minute in Milan’s backline this year, let’s address why this move, on the surface, is a bad or good one.

Playing Time

Gooch was getting plenty of playing time in Belgium, as he was the anchor of a strong defensive unit for Standard Liege. His improvement at the back has certainly mirrored his steady minutes on the field in the Jupiler League.

However, there is very little to suggest that his play would improve much further by playing for Standard. He would get consistent playing time in a mid-level European league, sure, but how much does he gain from facing the strikers there?

With the Rossoneri, every start Onyewu gets will be more pressure-filled, as he faces off against any one of 19 squads with more talent than the best of the Jupiler League. There is a laundry list of high quality strikers from megastars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alessandro Del Piero to budding starlets like Marco Di Vaio and Mario Balotelli.

Common sense would dictate that the quality of the game is better than the quantity of the starts. As a fan, we should want Onyewu tested against Ibrahimovic, Gilardino, and Iaquinta, rather than Tom De Sutter and Jaime Ruiz.

The less talked about point is that AC Milan will be competing in 3 competitions – Serie A, Coppa Italia, and the Champions League. With an aging squad, Milan will struggle to keep their players healthy and fit through the season, meaning there will be a myriad of opportunities for Onyewu to prove his worth.

Fear not, for Gooch will see the field.


It should come as no surprise that AC Milan offers a more decorated staff than Standard Liege.

More money and better facilities mean that training is much better in Milan than in Liege.

Onyewu will get much better personal coaching at a bigger club than at a smaller one, and this is one of the talking points that is hard to argue.

To a lesser extent, physical care is also taken to another level at the biggest clubs. Onyewu will get the best treatment possible to keep him in top physical condition throughout the year.


It’s certainly not a popular theory with Americans to suggest that players do in fact improve through practice. With Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore struggling to find playing time with their respective clubs, Americans have convinced themselves that the only way to improve is to see meaningful playing time.

Much to their dismay (or chagrin? or delight?), players develop themselves through rigorous training and high level coaching (which we’ve already addressed). It’s always forgotten, too, that there is an extensive reserve league in every major country, meaning that Onyewu will, at the very least, get playing time in a competitive setting of some kind.

More to the point, practices at AC Milan will be riddled with explosive talents like Andrea Pirlo, Alexandre Pato, and Ronaldinho. The training at this level will be more intense, which can only benefit Onyewu in his growth as a center-half.

Good or Bad?

Personally, I don’t see how this is anything but a brilliant move for Onyewu. Not only does he get to test himself in one of the most passionate soccer cities in the world, he gets to test his skills against some of the world’s best talent.

His level of training should increase rapidly, and in turn his on-field play should improve dramatically before World Cup 2010.

Lastly, and this is something that I believe is being overlooked, Onyewu won’t be asked to start every game.

With a World Cup looming less than 12 months away, American fans should be a bit relieved that Onyewu won’t be overworked at a place like Milan. He’ll play in plenty of matches, but he won’t play in so many that he’s exhausted for the World Cup.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure there’s a better fit for Gooch this year.


6 Responses

  1. The only thing I wouldn’t like about him moving to AC Milan and not getting much playing time (because everything else about it would be fantastic) is that he would miss out on the big game experience, but that would be true playing for Standard as well. I mean I can’t imagine that he is facing too many pressure situations or being involved in many huge games over there. Regardless I think he’ll be a big contributor at AC with Maldini on the way out and the rest of the lineup seeming quite old.

  2. I love your stuff, man. Keep it up.


  3. Hmm, I am actually persuaded. Great move for Onyewu and great signal of progress for U.S. soccer. Personally, I think Donovan could handle a club with a similar profile. I used to be a Donovan hater, but he really did show that he is calss and could be a great role-player at a major club in the Conf. Cup. I’m an optimist though.

  4. Ahhhh, Ryan you’ve finally got to that article I’ve been pondering about!

    I agree to a certain extent with Stephen in that I use to be a Donovan Hater and now I’m a supporter but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that he is up there at AC Milan yet.

    I think the thing with Donovan is that we all saw him as a “Golden Boy” after 02 and then he rode the pine at Bayern Leverkusen (I believe it was them) and I think that was the wrong route for him.

    Many Carribean players like Hislop, Wanchope and now American players like Onyewu and Davies are doing it – in my opinion – the right way: Go to a small Euro Club that has a need for your position and can offer the most important opportunity “playing time”! Then if they can shine with a small club then they’ve put themselves in a good spot – on a launching pad for a big league! Which is where Onyewu and Davies are and have landed.

    I think they both will get great playing times because they are no longer a “risk” because of their experience – bringing a player from the MLS I think poses a risk for big clubs.

    With Onyewu he is on a playing a team that will be playing in the ECL, the Italian Cup, and the League games. The players will be getting tired fast and will be cycled through a rotation (not like in Baseball but as needed) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Onyewu is playing in 15 matches minimum for the full ninty.

    I believe Davies was brought in with the expectation that he will fulfill the role of the outgoing striker. So I have no worries there and in fact I like the idea that he will be playing against better teams than his own because it will only increase the level of play.

    I think small clubs at first make more sense than going for the endzone everytime. Keep it simple and keep progressing!

    Good article Ryan!

    • I appreciate the kind words Jerry.

      I’ll have my article up on “target strikers” in a few hours. I have to run it by some fresh sets of eyes first to make sure I don’t have any glaring clerical errors.

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