CHESTER, Pa. – Throughout his first two-and-a-half seasons in MLS, Amobi Okugo was admittedly concerned.
Playing time was scarce for the sixth overall pick in the 2010 SuperDraft and the talented midfielder couldn’t seem to find a consistent place in the rotation.
“You’re worried because they drafted you so high,” Okugo told MLSsoccer.com. “They talked about building through the youth and it didn’t happen, even if you continue to get called in with youth national teams and play well in practice. It was kind of frustrating.”
Midway through the 2012 season, that all changed. And the reason for the change was simple: John Hackworth took over for Peter Nowak as team manager.
Knowing the value of Okugo, Hackworth immediately plugged him into the lineup … and never took him out. Remarkably, Okugo played every minute at center back in each of the 23 games of Hackworth’s regime, making him the player to benefit most from the midseason coaching change, arguably aside from fellow 2010 first-round pick Jack McInerney.
“For any player who went on the field and never came off? Yeah he’s extremely important,” Hackworth said. “He started every single game, played every single minute and he did it in a position that wasn’t his first choice. We would love to be able to see the versatility he brings in the midfield. We didn’t have that option this year. Going into the preseason, that’s one of those areas that we’re pretty excited about.”
The idea of putting Okugo back into a central midfield position where he’s played most of his life is an intriguing one for the Union. And assuming Bakary Soumaré can return to full health and pair with captain Carlos Valdés at center back, it’s probably their best option.
For Okugo, though, the only thing that matters is staying on the field.
“I have no preference – honestly,” he said. “At midfield, you get more touches on the ball. But as a defender, you get more time on the ball to make some easier passes. With both options, I’d just be happy to play to help the team.”
In the final game of the 2012 season, it was clear just how grateful Okugo was for his opportunity to be an everyday starter. As the final minutes of an eventual 3-0 loss to the Red Bulls ticked away – and the outcome was no longer in question – Okugo sprinted all over the field, going in for hard tackles against Red Bull players and pushing hard to set up a goal.
He later said that he “wanted to send a message to them that if they were going to pass the ball around and say olé, I wasn’t trying to have that happen.” But there was also more to it than that.
“I just cherished the moment to be on the field,” Okugo said. “I didn’t want the season to end.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org