Amobi Okugo, Sheanon Williams ready for leadership roles on Philadelphia Union's evolving backline

Amobi Okugo

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USA TODAY Sports

WAYNE, Pa. – A little more than a year ago, the Philadelphia Union had a surplus of seasoned center backs with Carlos Valdés, Bakary Soumare and Jeff Parke all on the roster.

But, heading into the 2014 season, those players are all gone, leaving 22-year-old converted midfielder Amobi Okugo as the most experienced center back at the team.

What’s it like for Okugo to now be one of the elder statesmen on the backline?

“Yeah, if you look at that way, it’s a little weird,” Okugo told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh. “But you’ve got to roll with the punches.”

Despite being so young and still relatively new to the position – he didn’t play center back until manager John Hackworth plugged him into the starting lineup in the middle of the 2012 season – Okugo will certainly be counted on to lead a Philly defensive unit that’s short on experience.

And even though he knows it will be tough to replace a veteran like Parke – who requested a trade for personal reasons and was dealt to D.C. United last month – he’s confident the backline will come together around himself and three-year right back starter Sheanon Williams.

As for the other defensive spots, Ray Gaddis and Fábinho will likely compete at left back, while Ethan White – who came over in the Parke trade – will battle rookie draft picks Kevin Cope and Richie Marquez to start alongside Okugo at center back.

“I think we’re fine,” Okugo said. “Sheanon’s already played 100 games. I’m going to reach that milestone this season if I’m lucky. Ray can step in. Fabi can step in.”

It also helps, Okugo said, to have goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who has 74 games under his belt already in his three-year career, and midfielders Brian Carroll and Maurice Edu “shielding” the backline.

“If that’s what the coach goes with, I think we’re going to be fine,” Okugo said.

For his part, Williams said it “sucks” to lose a defensive leader like Parke. And the 23-year-old right back added it would have been nice to get back Valdes, the former Union captain and All-Star who was recently loaned to San Lorenzo in Argentina after spending all of last season on loan with Colombia's Independiente Santa Fe.

But like Okugo, he believes the defense will remain strong in 2014 – in large part because the unit has proven it can successfully handle personnel changes.

“I think every year we’ve had changes to the backline and every year it seems to be OK,” Williams said. “That’s what we have the preseason for.”

And if, during the preseason, the youngsters competing for the starting center back spot don’t look they belong, Hackworth won’t hesitate to make a trade for somebody that does.

“I feel really good about our depth,” the Union manager said. “In the trade for Jeff Parke, we got Ethan White, who will certainly have an opportunity [to start] just like Kevin Cope and Richard Marquez. At the same time, one of those guys has to emerge in the preseason as a legitimate starter in the league, otherwise we’ll need to go out and make a move to acquire a center back that we feel can do the job.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.