CHESTER, Pa. – When Amobi Okugo was coming up through the US youth national team system, people would tell him to watch Maurice Edu play because both of the Nigerian-Americans had similar tendencies to their game.
In some ways, then, it makes sense that the two Philadelphia Union teammates have now swapped positions, with Okugo moving from center back to the midfield and Edu dropping from the midfield to Okugo’s old center back slot.
“We joke around a lot about it,” Okugo said. “But it’s good vibes. We’re just focused on trying to get the win – whether he’s playing center back or I’m playing center back.”
Heading into Friday’s road tilt against FC Dallas (9 pm ET, MLS Live), the move has paid big dividends for the Union, who have won all three games Edu has played on the backline – US Open Cup triumphs over the Harrisburg City Islanders and New York Cosmos followed by last week’s league win at New England.
And for Okugo, who’s played as a holding midfielder the last two games after sitting out against Harrisburg, it’s a move that’s helped reenergize him after a somewhat difficult start to the season.
“It’s fun,” Okugo said. “In the midfield, you get more touches on the ball. On defense, you always get blamed for everything.”
Okugo had been a midfielder all of his life until John Hackworth, after taking over the Union’s managerial post in the middle of the 2012 season, plugged him in at center back to get him on the field.
It wasn’t until there was another managerial change, with Jim Curtin taking over for Hackworth last month, that Okugo’s career trajectory made another turn.
“Part of it is we were giving up a lot of goals, so something had to change,” Curtin said. “It happened to be that Maurice was a guy who has a lot of attributes of a center back – the speed, the heading ability, a little more size.
“And I had a conversation with Amobi. If you remember, he sat out the Harrisburg game just because I wanted him to watch and see it from the side. There was a reason for that. And we had a good discussion about some of his qualities, and what might be best for him is to play in the center midfield for the team at the moment.”
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While it’s an interesting dynamic for Okugo and Edu to have switched positions, Curtin’s eventual plan seems to be to pair the two of them together in the holding midfield. But that depends on if and when they can bring on-loan center back Carlos Valdes back to Philly or when Austin Berry returns to full health.
Either way, Okugo’s friendship with Edu will continue to grow – even if he acts as “his personal driver” and likes to “jab” at him when they’re on opposite teams in practice.
“He’s one of the players I always looked at for success,” Okugo said. “And now that he’s here, we’ve become really good friends.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.