TWENTY-ONE years ago, John Harkes became the first American to score in a League Cup final for Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley in a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal.
Two decades later and the Owls faithful have another American to adopt a ‘USA’ chant for which sounds more at home at a sun-drenched Ryder Cup than a sodden Spotland.
Towering American centre-back Oguchi Onyewu, who numbers European heavyweights AC Milan and Sporting Lisbon among his previous clubs, has joined the Owls hoping to play his way into the US squad for this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
While the 31-year-old obviously has one eye on Rio, he helped 10-man Wednesday to reach the last 16 of the FA Cup with an impressive display on Saturday.
First, he lashed home Wednesday’s second goal – after Joe Mattock had broken the deadlock – for his first goal in English football after spells with Newcastle United and QPR, before showing his defensive strength.
The Owls looked to be comfortable at 2-0 but Rochdale – who had already knocked out Rotherham United and Leeds United in earlier rounds – grabbed a lifeline with a stunning long-range effort from Michael Rose.
The hosts sniffed a giant-killing and, with Mattock seeing red for two innocuous yellow cards, manager Keith Hill finished the game with four strikers.
But Onyewu and Glenn Loovens continually repelled Rochdale’s attacks, with goalkeeper Damian Martinez – on loan from Arsenal and taking over from the rested Chris Kirkland – sweeping up behind them.
“That was my first goal,” said Onyewu. “It felt good but, more importantly, it was good to get the win for the team and get into the next round.
“I think we put in a good effort, especially when we went a man down.
“It was a good effort and we continue this good run we are on.
“It was my first goal in English football, but it’s all the same in any country.
“I am just pleased to have contributed to the win here. Cup games in any country are a little bit special. You have Cinderella stories, the lower teams concentrate on it, and today Rochdale played really good football.
“I think they will be disappointed they didn’t get a better result, but, fortunately for us, we were able to put our chances away and dig it out to the end.”
This was just Onyewu’s second game in an Owls shirt since signing at Hillsborough until the end of the season.
Having had few chances to impress at QPR in the first half of this season, the defender knows he is still playing catch-up in terms of match fitness.
“It’s been a few months since I have had regular football so I am getting the hang of it and, as the weeks go on and I get more games, I will be stronger,” he said.
“I am just happy to have got this opportunity to play and be able to repay the coach and the club for the confidence they had in me.
“I have done pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement, I am not stopping here.
“We want to continue this positive run of results and, if I can get a goal, I will do it.”
That unbeaten run of results now stands at eight, as Stuart Gray continues to impress since taking over from the axed Dave Jones.
Wednesday were kicking into a fierce wind in the first half, Martinez seeing his goal-kicks struggle to cross halfway.
But they had several chances to score in a scrappy opening 45 minutes. Chris Maguire was chopped down by Ashley Eastham, who was booked, on the edge of the penalty area and youngster Caolan Lavery slipped at the vital moment as Kieran Lee’s deflected shot fell at his feet with just goalkeeper Josh Lillis to beat.
Rochdale midfielder Peter Vincenti planted a header the wrong side of Martinez’s right-hand post, and a defensive mix-up gifted a chance to Matt Done but the former Barnsley winger was thwarted by Martinez.
Jacques Maghoma should have put Wednesday in front but Lillis saved well. Wednesday, however, had been threatening at corners and this proved to be very rewarding for the visitors.
Onyewu had already struck the post with a header from Maguire’s corner, so when the latter once more delivered at the start of the second half, Loovens headed goalwards and Mattock knocked in the loose ball.
It was swiftly 2-0 when a corner from the opposite flank picked out Onyewu, who lashed home at the second attempt.
Rose’s 25-yard stunner and Mattock’s red card – which sees the left-back miss tomorrow’s Championship trip to Millwall – saw Rochdale throw everything at Wednesday in the final half-hour, but the visitors were resolute in defence.
Not even a denied penalty for a blatant push in the back on Lee, with the goal at his mercy, could take the gloss off a deserved victory.
Gray said: “The game was a typical FA Cup tie with a great atmosphere at Spotland. At times in that first half, we had to play with a gale force wind in our faces, so it was tough going.
“But I said to the players at half-time that we’d have the wind behind us in the second half and we went out and scored a couple of quick goals with that in mind, so I was really pleased we made the most of that.
“But credit to Rochdale, they are a good side and they came back into it.
“Joe was disappointed to be sent off as he felt he hadn’t made contact with their lad.
“But once we were down to 10 men, we went against them with two banks of four and defended very well and, in the end, Rochdale were firing balls into the area which quite suited our centre-halves.”
Rochdale: Lillis, Bennett (Camps 75), Eastham, Vincenti (Cummins 67), Hogan, Lund, Done, O’Connell, Rose, Allen (Donnelly 58), Henderson. Unused substitutes: Rafferty, Hery, Thomson, Bunney.
Sheffield Wednesday: Martinez, Palmer, Loovens, Onyewu, Mattock, Maghoma (Coke 82), Semedo, Lee, Maguire, Nuhiu (Johnson 78), Lavery (Helan 67). Unused substitutes: Kirkland, McCabe, McPhail, Llera.
Referee: S Hooper (Wiltshire).