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Onyewu prepares for first game with AC Milan

OGUCHI Onyewu, the first US-born player to sign with prestigious Italian club AC Milan, is eager to prove he belongs at football's highest professional level.

He'll get a first chance, of sorts, today, when AC Milan plays Mexico's Club America in a friendly at the Georgia Dome.

"Obviously in sports, there's no guarantees," Onyewu said yesterday. "I'm certainly under the impression that I'll have to play for my spot. I'm still trying to figure out what I need to do because we have a number of great defenders on the squad, and this is the first day that I actually got involved with the team."

AC Milan organizing director Umberto Gandini, who has hired Brazilian Leonardo as head coach, hopes Onyewu will be the central piece in a slight rebuilding job for the long-respected team. Captain Paolo Maldini retired when last season ended, and many Milan fans were upset when playmaker Kaka was sold to Real Madrid.

Gandini replaced coach Carlo Ancelotti, who signed with Chelsea, after Milan finished third last season in the Serie A. The team also announced that Massimo Ambrosini will replace Maldini as captain.

"We are in a new period," Gandini said. "Therefore we are in a situation with our new coach, Leonardo, to help with ideas and new motivations to develop a new era. We are very proud of our history. We are very confident of our present and working toward the future.

Onyewu, 27, whose parents emigrated to the United States from Nigeria, left to play professionally in Europe seven years ago.

He signed a three-year deal with Milan earlier this month, but the Italian club had been tracking Onyewu since he emerged with Belgium's Standard Liege in 2004. Despite an unsuccessful 11-game tenure with Newcastle, where he often failed to keep up with the fast pace in the English Premier League, Onyewu returned to Belgium for the 2007-2008 season and helped Standard Liege win consecutive Belgian league titles.

For the United States, Onyewu started all three games at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and showed his talent in the Americans' CONCACAF Gold Cup championships in 2005 and '07.

He most recently helped the United States to the Confederations Cup final, where it lost 3-2 to Brazil.


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