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Okugo back in Union fold after moving past Olympic defeat

Amobi Okugo

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

CHESTER, Pa. — It’s been more than a month since the United States U-23 team’s Olympic dreams were dashed in devastating fashion.

But, at times, the pain still feels fresh for Philadelphia Union midfielder Amobi Okugo, a key player on that U-23 squad.

HIGHLIGHTS: PHI 1, SJ 2

“I saw the Olympic draw and got mad about that,” Okugo told MLSsoccer.com. “And seeing all the NBC commercials … there’s just a little sting.”

But like Union teammate Freddy Adu, the only thing Okugo can do now is harness that feeling and try to transform it into MLS success. And slowly but surely, Okugo seems to be working his way back into the Union rotation.

After sitting out the first four games of the season, mostly while he was away at Olympic qualifying, the 21-year-old holding midfielder played 19 minutes as a sub in back-to-back games — on April 14 and April 21 respectively — before earning his first start of the season this past Saturday vs. San Jose.

“Coming back from the Olympic team, the coaches have slowly integrated me into the team,” Okugo said. “I was happy to get the first start.”

The main reason Okugo got the start was because of an injury to veteran midfielder Brian Carroll, who sat out the game with a right hamstring strain. In general, though, it might be tough for Okugo to crack the starting lineup when the reliable Carroll is healthy, considering the Union have been using one defensive midfielder in their recent formations.

“That’s a huge bonus, getting a starter off the Olympic team coming of the bench and filling in for Brian Carroll,” Union assistant coach John Hackworth said. “That’s also a challenge for Amobi to deal with – at the moment, being behind a guy like Brian. But it’s fantastic to have him and he obviously did a great job for us.”

Hackworth – who will be filling in for suspended Union manager Peter Nowak for the second straight game Saturday when the Union take on Seattle at CenturyLink Field (4:30 pm ET, NBC Sports Network) – said in the club’s weekly press conference that Carroll should be healthy enough to play this weekend.

That likely means Okugo will return to the bench. But like every player, his plan isn’t to stay there long.

“I hope to get in the starting lineup – that’s my main goal,” Okugo said. “I feel like I matured a lot. Playing in national team camps has been integral to my development. When I’m not playing here, the chance to get away and be a key member of the national team was great.

“Unfortunately we won’t have the opportunity in the Olympics but hopefully I’ll play here and get called into the full team sooner or later.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com.