Skip to content
Union
Link copied to clipboard

Union bringing Okugo along slowly

Patience isn't the easiest trait to exhibit for a young athlete on the fast track. Yet Union midfielder Amobi Okugo saw the difficult reality of breaking into professional soccer last year. Now 20 years old, Okugo left UCLA after being named Pac-10 freshman of the year in 2009 and was taken by the Union as the No. 6 overall selection in Major League Soccer's SuperDraft.

Amobi Okugo's patience has paid off as he has become a major contributor for the Union. (Matt McClain/AP Photo)
Amobi Okugo's patience has paid off as he has become a major contributor for the Union. (Matt McClain/AP Photo)Read more

Patience isn't the easiest trait to exhibit for a young athlete on the fast track.

Yet Union midfielder Amobi Okugo saw the difficult reality of breaking into professional soccer last year. Now 20 years old, Okugo left UCLA after being named Pac-10 freshman of the year in 2009 and was taken by the Union as the No. 6 overall selection in Major League Soccer's SuperDraft.

Okugo appeared in 11 of the Union's 30 games last season, making four starts. He played a total of 437 minutes.

If there was disappointment in not playing much, Okugo didn't let it show, and he kept grinding it out in practice last year. He entered this season with a positive attitude and has made the most of a recent opportunity.

When midfielder Brian Carroll suffered a strained hamstring in the sixth minute of an eventual 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, Okugo went in and played an outstanding game. Since then, he hasn't been off the field.

He played all 90 minutes in both a 1-1 draw with Seattle and in last week's 1-0 win over the visiting San Jose Earthquakes. Okugo was responsible for setting up the goal against the Earthquakes as it was his cross that resulted in a hand-ball by San Jose's Jason Hernandez inside the box. Sebastien Le Toux then converted the penalty kick for the Union's fourth straight 1-0 win.

One of the reasons Okugo is contributing is that he made the best of a tough situation last year during his limited playing time.

"Coming in, it was difficult - but the coaches did a good job of helping me develop certain points of my game," Okugo said. "The key was being patient and always being confident."

Those are not the easiest two things to do, but necessary for a young player like Okugo, who is also a fixture on the under-20 U.S. national team.

The Union's brief history shows they are never going to hand a position to a young player, even a highly touted one. For instance, Danny Mwanga, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's SuperDraft, has started only three of the first six games this year.

Team manager Peter Nowak isn't averse to using the youngsters, but it has to be at the right time.

"We know young players like Amobi are waiting for a chance, and the last thing you want to do is put them in a situation where they can't succeed," Nowak said. "We need to make sure they get the tactical part of the game down."

Nowak said he was impressed with how hard Okugo kept working both last season and during the preseason this year.

"After our preseason and the time he spent with the under-20 team, we saw that he is ready to play on the first team," Nowak said. "He has great confidence in his ability, and we always try to find the right time to see when they are ready."

Last season and this year, Okugo did all the necessary extra steps needed to improve. He came to practice early, stayed late, and worked out with many of the other players who also weren't seeing much time in the games.

It has all paid off. Okugo is strong and difficult to push off the ball, a relentless defender whose offensive skills should continue to emerge as he gets more playing time.

He said the Red Bulls game was a confidence-builder, as it was against one of the top teams in the league.

"None of us young players have reached our ceiling, and we're all trying to get better," he said.

The effort is paying off. Yet Okugo vows not to get complacent. The Union may not have any superstars in the midfield, but it's become a deep area where several players, including Okugo, will likely continue to battle for playing time.

"We have so much depth this year, and there are no guaranteed spots," Okugo said. "It pushes us each day in practice."