Okugo comes into his own on Gen. adidas trip
Philadelphia Union midfielder Amobi Okugo is in Madrid with the rest of his Generation adidas teammates training, absorbing soccer culture and performing well against reserve sides from Real Madrid, Rayo Valleacano and Atlético Madrid.
Despite having only one true defender on the roster, the group went 3-0, becoming the first Generation adidas squad to finish the yearly trip undefeated.
The reward? A trip to the Bernabéu for the second time in five days to watch Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. play in the Champions League.
It's a fitting venue for Okugo. Although he doesn't have the name recognition of Freddy Adu, Michael Bradley or other former youth stars, the 19-year-old is about as close to soccer royalty as one gets in the United States.
He earned six caps during his 2007 stint at the U-17 residency program. At 17, he stepped up to play a half with the U-20 squad in their last match before the 2009 World Cup.
[inline_node:324123]Top Drawer Soccer ranked Okugo as the No. 1 recruit in '09. After a standout season at UCLA during which the Northern Californian earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors, he signed a Generation adidas contract and was taken sixth overall by the Union in the 2010 SuperDraft.
The 6-foot product from Sacramento's Rio Americano High School struggled to find time in Peter Nowak's midfield, but he did start four matches and appeared in seven more. He focused on improving his game and hopes to land a full-time starting role at some point during 2011.
"I hope I can play more games and maybe eventually get a starting spot," he told MLSsoccer.com. "We have a lot of center mids who are older or more experienced. I'll just try to take as many games as I can. I'll work on my player development. As long as I'm getting games and improving as a player, I can't really get mad."
Okugo's versatility should help him find the field. Although he relishes the role of defensive midfielder, he lined up at center back against Colombia during the U-20s' recent trip to Georgia for the Torneo de las Americas and for the Generation adidas crew in Spain.
He prefers starting just in front of the back four but would consider a move if the Union coaching staff asked him.
"If someone's hurt and I can play there consistently, I'll try it out," he said.
While some of his Generation adidas teammates are just getting to know each other, Okugo's years spent at the highest level of the American youth system means he's familiar with almost everyone. He was in residency with fellow Generation adidas players Brek Shea, Luis Gil, Danny Cruz, Juan Agudelo and others. He also played on the US U-20 squad with Ike Opara, Sean Johnson and Peri Marosevic.
[inline_node:324650]In Madrid, he's become a leader "just on a basis of knowing the most people and being the most comfortable all the people on the team."
This is a skill that has served him well on the youth national teams as well, where the constant influx of new talent forces guys to bond quickly. (Okugo missed six months due to Union commitments before rejoining the squad last month.)
"We're a real close-knit group, but last camp we had couple new guys from Europe who we welcomed in with open arms immediately," he said. "There are some other guys in Europe who will come over, and we'll welcome them as well."
In 2011, Okugo will help the U-20 side during April's CONCACAF Championship that doubles as World Cup qualifying. He will likely make Thomas Rongen's World Cup roster. He'll find more time with his MLS club side. He'll work to improve his game
The California kid will also try to stay warm in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.
"It's cold, man, but I've adjusted," he said. "I got a couple winter coats. Some hats. Some beanies."
MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.