Amobi Okugo stepping up for Philadelphia Union as captain, returning to defensive midfield

CHESTER, Pa. – Amobi Okugo was given two new assignments over the course of the last two games: play in the midfield and wear the captain’s armband.

Only one of them felt different.

While Okugo is still learning how to be a captain, being deployed in the midfield was nothing new for him. He had played in that part of the field all of his life before assuming starting center-back duties for the Philadelphia Union midway through the 2012 season.  

“I’ve been playing there since I was six, so it comes natural to me,” Okugo told MLSsoccer.com. “I feel like that’s my natural position. It’s fun to play there but wherever I play it’s about helping the team.”

Union manager John Hackworth needed Okugo to switch positions because of a shortage of holding midfielders, as Brian Carroll (groin) and Maurice Edu (US national team) were both absent. Even midfield reserve Michael Lahoud was out of commission after being called up to the Sierra Leone national team for a 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match.

Partnering with Vincent Nogueira in the central midfield, Okugo thought he played well this past week, especially in Wednesday’s 2-1 upset win over Sporting Kansas City.

But without him there to anchor the defense, Philly’s backline imploded in a 5-3 loss to the New England Revolution on Saturday and that did not sit well with Okugo.

“When your name is called, you’ve got to step up,” said Okugo, providing a glimpse of why Hackworth has turned to him as captain. “Whether it’s communicating, following runners, being tough in the box – we didn’t do that. We were fouling unnecessarily, not following runners, not getting second balls – and they punished us.”

Regardless of Saturday’s ugly result, Okugo said he felt comfortable back in the midfield and is even growing more accustomed to captaining the team. Before this past week, Okugo only wore the captain’s armband once before in his MLS career – in the second game of the 2014 season – and said he had no idea what to say to his teammates before the game began.

But he joked that his pregame speeches have “drastically improved" since then.

“I feel like it’s the biggest honor to be captain of the club,” Okugo said. “I’m just trying to do the best I can to lead the boys with [Carroll] out.”

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