CHESTER, Pa. – In part because the Philadelphia Union are stocked with so many capable holding midfielders, manager Peter Nowak has typically played two of them together to create a more defensive-oriented lineup.
But with veterans Brian Carroll and Stefani Miglioranzi both nursing minor injuries and the club looking to exploit San Jose’s style of play, Nowak used 20-year-old Amobi Okugo as the team’s only defensive central midfielder for Saturday’s game against the Earthquakes.
Considering the Union marched to their fourth shutout and Okugo set up the club’s only goal, you can say the gamble paid.
“The back line did a great job of keeping me connected,” Okugo said. “My job is to shield the back four and connect with the other attackers. San Jose plays a certain way, so we changed our tactics and it worked out for the better.”
Attacking midfielder Roger Torres and striker Danny Mwanga were also handed starts, joining wingers Sebastien Le Toux and Keon Daniel as well as forward Carlos Ruiz up top to give the club a dangerous, attacking look.
Nowak was forced to change tactics at halftime when defender Jordan Harvey was sent off, bringing Miglioranzi in to join Okugo in the defensive midfield. But the team did not change its offensive-minded approach, and Okugo, after dribbling by a few defenders, drew a handball in the box, which led to a PK goal from Le Toux – and a gutsy 1-0 Philly win.
“He did a really good job,” Union defender Danny Califf said of Okugo. “He covered a lot of ground and broke up a lot of plays, which was really helpful. He’s maturing every single game. It’s a process. He’s a kid, but you can see the wheels turning in his head. You can point to Danny Mwanga’s progress last year and say it’s similar. The more he plays, the more comfortable he’s going to get and the more dynamic and aware he becomes in the middle.”
Okugo has certainly been given time to improve. Since returning from the CONCACAF U-20 Championships, the second-year midfielder has been on the field in all but six minutes of action, and the Union have gone 2-0-1 in that stretch.
That said, Carroll is on his way back from a mild hamstring strain, meaning Okugo will likely see less time in the coming weeks, starting with Friday’s game in Portland (11 pm ET, Fox Soccer). But if the youngster keeps performing as he has been, Nowak will have some difficult lineup decisions to make, especially if he decides to keep playing with only one holding midfielder.
“I feel like I’ve been playing fairly well,” Okugo said. “But the most important thing is results. I’m just looking forward to Portland.”