CHESTER, Pa. -- When Amobi Okugo scored the Union’s go-ahead goal on Saturday against the Colorado Rapids, it didn’t just signify his first as a Union player.
It was also a sign that entering his fourth season, the 22-year-old is ready to claim his spot as one the club’s go-to leaders and on-field producers.
“I’m just hoping to stay on the field and make an impact, whether that’s on defense or midfield”, said Okugo, a natural defensive midfielder excelling at center back for the second year under coach John Hackworth. "I’m happy to play wherever the coach tells me to and I’m comfortable at center mid or just trying to help the team at center back. I’m still new to the position, but we’ve been doing well, and I’ve been doing well -- I just want to keep it going.”
Keeping momentum hasn’t been an issue thus far for Okugo, who has carried over an excellent 2012 season into a great and confident start to 2013. Okugo’s goal, which came on a clean header in the 34th minute off a Sebastien Le Toux corner kick, was the first for him in 55 career games with the Union and a sign of positive development.
“I’ve worked on my aerial game,” he said. “It’s something the coaching staff wanted me to do, especially playing defense more. If you’re working on it defensively, you can work on it offensively as well. It was fortunate to pay off.
“I can’t remember the last time I scored a goal, I think it was in the under-20 [US Men’s] National Team or something,” he said. “It feels good, especially after getting a chance in the first game against [Sporting] Kansas City and to have another one against Colorado but take advantage of it -- it feels good.”
Okugo’s strong play has come at the expense of high-priced Bakary Soumare, who can’t crack the Union lineup but was recently called up the Mali National Team. Soumare, standing at 6-foot-4, was signed in 2012 to be the Union’s star center back. Instead, knee injuries plagued him last season, which forced Okugo into the defensive spot.
“Although he’s not playing with us right now, Baky has done well here,” said Hackworth, whose club takes on the New England Revolution on Saturday at PPL Park. “If it weren’t for Amobi Okugo playing so well, Baky would be on the field. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why Baky has not started or played for us, but it’s not because Baky isn’t in good form. It’s purely because we have [Okugo and Jeff Parke] in front of him who are playing very well.”
With his performance in training camp, Okugo, listed at 6-foot, beat out Soumare for the position next to Parke and has become one of the top young talents to watch in MLS. That fact has made it impossible for the Union coaching staff to move Okugo off the defensive line in favor of Soumare.
“It’s just been coach’s decision,” said Hackworth. “Baky is not exactly happy with that decision and I don’t expect any player to be. The fact is, he’s a good pro, he comes to work every single day and does everything we ask. But at the end of the day we have to make tough choices.”
Choices that are becoming easier with every Okugo performance.