Until Sunday, that is.
After shuffling through different lineups since taking over as interim manager in June, Jim Curtin finally paired Edu and Okugo together as central midfield partners behind playmaker Vincent Nogueira during Philly's 4-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes.
He came away pleased with the results – mostly.
“They ran off each other and did some things well,” Curtin said. “They broke up a lot. They started the attack. Would I like to see maybe one more advance sometimes to maintain possession? For sure. But the two goals we scored early kind of dictated that we fall back a little. So I was happy with both of their performances.”
Even if Okugo or Edu did not get forward as much as Curtin may have liked, the two looked very comfortable playing off of each other – which the manager believes stems a lot from the fact that they’re “very tight off the field.” Okugo, too, credited their friendship and knowledge of each other’s tendencies for “just having the balance” of having one player hold while the other goes forward, and vice versa.
“When he first came in, we naturally bonded,” Okugo said. “We’ve become very close. He’s been sort of like a big brother-type of guy to me, so when we get on the field during practice, we’re usually playing together. Whether it’s being partners for passing drills or juggling drills, we’re always pushing each other and keeping that competition lively. For us to finally play together, it was good.”
Earlier in Curtin’s tenure, the two players had essentially swapped positions, with Okugo moving into the midfield and Edu taking Okugo’s center back spot. But now that the Union have center back Carlos Valdés back in the fold, Curtin has more flexibility in the midfield, with Edu, Okugo, Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Michael Lahoud and Brian Carroll all vying for minutes in the center of the pitch.
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It’s unclear if the Edu-Okugo partnership will continue once Maidana returns to playmaking duties from a hamstring injury – which could push Nogueira back into more of a holding role and possibly Edu back into the back line. But the two friends certainly hope it sticks.
“I think we both have the natural ability to get forward, to be box-to-box players,” Edu said. “I think we understand each other well. Obviously it’s a partnership that’s going to grow as we continue to get more games together. But as a starting point, I think it went well.”
Added Okugo: “I think we did pretty well putting out fires and keeping the ball moving. I feel like we can even raise it to another level.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.