Mwanga and Okugo welcome challenge of next level

They are a pair of 18-year-olds on the same journey.

They have the same goals, the same vision, the same dreams.

Danny Mwanga and Amobi Okugo were selected first and sixth overall, respectively, in January’s Major League Soccer SuperDraft. As far as building blocks go, these two should be cornerstones of the foundation Philadelphia Union continues to build.

Since the SuperDraft, their lives have been a blur – training sessions locally, in chilly Greensboro, N.C., and on to Guadalajara, Mexico and then eventually Tampa before opening the regular season March 25 at Seattle.

It has already been an extraordinary ride for the matched pair of gifted young athletes.

What have they learned thus far?

“Every day at practice, I’m getting a chance to go after some of the best defenders in the league, like Danny Califf and Shavar (Thomas),” said Mwanga, who starred at forward for Oregon State. “Playing around those guys is showing me how to be more physical. Since I got here, I’ve learned more about my game and how to play it quicker. My fitness level is also much better than it was at the college level. Every day here is a chance to get better and better.”

Okugo echoed similar thoughts.

“Since I arrived to training camp, I’ve learned a lot of new things,” Okugo said. “You have to be consistent and able to adjust, since the game is all about transition. The professional game is a lot faster than college. The older players and the coaches are great examples for us, and we learn daily from all they have to offer. I’m just really happy to be a part of this."

The MLS season will be a much different experience than playing an NCAA schedule.

The players say they are preparing for the difficult transition.

“The MLS season is a long one,” said Mwanga. “You play a lot of really good games, at the professional level, so it will definitely be more physical, plus the speed of the game is faster. I’m hoping to have adjusted enough by the time the season starts. It’s going to be a lot faster and more physical compared to college soccer, so we need to work hard every day to make sure we are at that level.”

Okugo, a standout midfielder at UCLA, added: “The MLS season is much longer than college, so that alone is going to be different. Then the importance of games and the amount of them added to the level of play are features that are definitely different from college. As a rookie, those are factors that we need to work on daily, but I’m really eager to learn and excited for the upcoming professional season."

Between now and March 25 when Philadelphia Union takes the field for First Kick against Seattle Sounders FC, the players won’t have much down time. But that’s fine with them.

“It’s a little bit hard because it’s different compared to the college season, which is very short,” Mwanga said. “This is a very long preseason, but we are trying to stay focused all the way through. We know this is the only time we have to get ready for the season, so we all are trying to stick together. The young guys are trying to look at the older guys, so they can learn from experience and from what those guys have done before to get through this.”

Okugo believes that having balance is vital to accomplish on-field goals.

“During the off time, we either just rest or hang out with the team by playing cards, and just trying to get our minds away from soccer to give ourselves a break,” he said. “We just try to rest as much as possible so when we get on the field, we focus and put all of our energy into the game.”