CHESTER, Pa. – For the first time in his MLS career, Philadelphia Union center back Amobi Okugo wore the captain’s armband Saturday.
And it didn’t faze the fifth-year pro – at least once the game began.
“The pregame speech, right before we went on the field, I didn’t even know what to say,” Okugo laughed. “I was stuttering and all the guys were making fun of me.”
What followed, though, was a typically staunch game from Okugo, who anchored the Union’s defense in a 1-0 shutout of the New England Revolution while filling the leadership shoes of the team’s normal captain, Brian Carroll.
Carroll was a late scratch because he came down with flu-like symptoms that day, prompting Union manager John Hackworth to hand the armband to Okugo.
“We came in and BC wasn’t in the lineup and I was like, ‘What the heck? He was practicing yesterday,’” Okugo said. “So then I talked to BC and coach Hack sat me and [Maurice Edu] down and said he was going to give it to either one of us. They went with me and I was just honored to lead the group to the win.”
It certainly was an honor for a 23-year-old, who wasn’t even earning any playing time two years ago at this time. But since the middle of the 2012 season, after being switched from the midfield to center back, Okugo has emerged as one of the club’s most valuable players – to the point where Hackworth trusted him to captain the team in Philly’s home opener.
“Amobi got the captain’s armband and he was constantly looking over to me,” Hackworth said. “I told him to get our line up and don’t let us drop back and try to defend this one. We do that with our pressure. We think that our pressure initiates our attack.”
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In the end, the Union dropped back more than Hackworth would have liked in the second half as they tried to avoid giving up a late equalizer like they did in their season-opening draw with Portland. But they still kept the Revs from creating many scoring chances, even after starting center back Austin Berry left the game early in the second half with a hamstring injury and was replaced by converted forward Aaron Wheeler.
Okugo downplayed the difficulties of switching center back partners in the middle of the game, saying that it “wasn’t too tough.” But he didn’t make light what it meant to be the team’s captain, if only for one game.
“It was just a whirlwind of emotions,” he said.
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.