WASHINGTON — Oguchi Onyewu played it cool, for a moment at least. As his header settled in the net at RFK Stadium, the Philadelphia Union defender pointed to the sky and casually jogged toward midfield.
"I was calm," Onyewu said, "and then it hit me."
It hit him that this was his first goal since January 2014, when he scored for Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. It him that the strike came in his hometown of Washington. And it him that Saturday was his 35th birthday.
So Onyewu gleefully stuck out his tongue, pivoting from stroll to sprint. Shaping a heart with his hands, the D.C. native gestured toward the 50-some family and friends tucked in the northwest corner of RFK Stadium.
"Emotions took over me," Onyewu said. "Just let me run around a little bit, like a little boy, like I was back to being 23."
Added Union coach Jim Curtin: "That was probably the loudest the building got — he must've had a lot of people here, for sure."
That 64th-minute tally gave Philadelphia a two-goal lead over D.C. United, with the visitors eventually cruising to a 4-0 win. Earlier this month, the Union were the last team in MLS without a win. Now Curtin's side sits at 2-4-4, just three points out of playoff positioning.
To Onyewu, the game meant much more than that.
The injury-plagued veteran had gone more than two years without playing a match before debuting for the Union in March. Yes, he remained on the fringes of the American soccer picture in recent years, popping up with a training stint here and trial there. But the longer Onyewu remained out of contract, the more likely it became that he was heading for an unceremonious exit from the sport.
"There were probably like three or four teams that passed on me," Onyewu said, "strictly because of my age, strictly because of my injury history and strictly because they didn't believe in me."
Then the Union took a flyer on Onyewu. A starting spot out of preseason followed. In anchoring a shutout win while scoring his first MLS goal Saturday, the 6-foot-4 center back did more than prove he can still play — he offered glimpses of the player whose U.S. national team performances earned a move to AC Milan in 2009.
"It's no secret that in recent years I've struggled with injuries and such," Onyewu said. "To come back to my hometown, on my birthday, turn 35 and kind of put it in the faces of a lot of people in the league who thought I was too old, too injured to play — I think they're opening their eyes and realizing otherwise right now."
Onyewu's goal came yards away from the exact spot on the RFK Stadium field where his injury troubles began, with a torn patellar tendon in a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in October 2009. The seven and a half years since have been a grind for Onyewu, whose ambitions for club and country were tempered amid a seemingly endless string of setbacks and rehabilitation stints.
"Sometimes it makes you reflect that there's a lot more important things than soccer," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. "But for him, he's always been mentally strong."
That fortitude was again put to the test last month, when Curtin pushed Onyewu out of the lineup for three matches in favor of a Richie Marquez-Jack Elliott partnership in central defense. As Onyewu grew frustrated with his role on the bench, the Union coaching staff still saw a veteran imparting wisdom on his younger counterparts.
"He's been a real leader in our locker room," Curtin said. "I know that he was mad when we made a change, but he's been a man about that. I told him he can be as mad as he wants at me, but it still has to be positive with all of the other guys. To his credit, he has done a heck of a job leading our young center backs, leading the team."
As the second-oldest player on the Union roster, behind fellow 35-year-old Brian Carroll, Onyewu knows it's part of the package. That was the role Philadelphia seemed to envision when signing Onyewu at a bargain price of $65,000 this season, per MLS Players Union numbers.
But in Curtin's words, Onyewu "has more than overachieved."
"They tease me on the team — they call me old man," Onyewu said. "I said, 'As long as I can turn back the clock two hours a day, you can't call me old man.'"