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RSL’s Nedum Onuoha leaves legacy of off-field impact as he retires from pro soccer

SHARE RSL’s Nedum Onuoha leaves legacy of off-field impact as he retires from pro soccer
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Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha (14) and Los Angeles FC forward Diego Rossi (9) battle for the ball as Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles FC play an MLS game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. RSL won 3-0.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Nedum Onuoha is the first to acknowledge that on a list of Real Salt Lake greats, names such as Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran, among others, will likely come up before his because of their success on the field.

After all, Onuoha will have been with RSL for just over two years when he plays the final game of his career on Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium against Sporting Kansas City.

That notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that the 33-year-old from Nigeria by way of England who has been a professional for 16 years has made an indelible mark on the RSL organization at a crucial time in its history. 

Yes, he’s been an important part of the back line, but more impactful has been his role as a leader within the team and as a public voice on matters of racial justice, especially in recent months.

“Nedum’s been a great addition to our club ever since he came, on and off the field,” midfielder Albert Rusnak said Friday via Zoom. “A great person, a great player ... people like him don’t come around often, so I’m proud I could have played with him for a couple of years, and I wish him a good retirement.”

If they hadn’t before, the public got a glimpse over the past few months at Onuoha’s character as he told why players opted to not play on Aug. 26 in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin, and then responded firmly to departing RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen’s displeasure over it the next day.

“We wanted to be here playing, we wanted to be on the field playing in front of fans, which we are very lucky to do, but life is a bigger thing than sport, and I think at times we can confuse the two and think sports the be all end all of everything,” he said on Aug. 26, “but the reality of the situation is that it’s not at all, and when we can really start to grasp that and understand why people do what they do and why we’ve done what we’ve done today.”

On Friday as he met with media via Zoom, Onuoha reflected on the idea that he’ll leave a strong legacy off the field in Utah.

“From when I arrived, obviously I wanted to help people on the field, but I think for everywhere that I’ve been, I think off the field stuff has always mattered to me,” he said. “I think being able to leave here, and obviously not having the legacy of a (Beckerman) or a Tony Beltran or a Nick Rimando who won the MLS Cup, I can’t have that luxury, but I think I’ve helped people on the field and I think I’ve helped people off the field as well.

“I think it was important to speak up when things aren’t right. ... I’m very proud to say that I’m respected by people for more than just what I do on the field, because the stuff that’s on the field, that can be replaced, but the legacy that you have off there is very hard to do.”

RSL head coach Freddy Juarez said Onuoha, who had a long stint in the English Premier League, was someone he and the front office have relied on for guidance on various questions and issues. 

“Just a very good human being in the locker room,” Juarez said. “Great teammate, someone that will always listen when you have questions and provide some honest feedback. ... He was always a person that I would go to, and I felt like I wasn’t hesitant to ask him difficult questions and he was always honest in giving me answers that he was honest about. He came in a short amount of time and made a big difference in that aspect.”

As he prepares for his final game Sunday, Onuoha wants to go out on a high note, but he’s also looking forward to spending more time with his wife and three kids.

“To be able to spend more time with them and be able to create my own schedule, that excites me,” he said. “I think I’m comfortable stepping out because I’m excited about the rest of my life.”