Improving Okugo bides his time, eyes elusive senior U.S. national team call-up
SEATTLE — The USA's failure to qualify for the 2011 FIFA Under-20 World Cup and 2012 Summer Olympics may have stunted Amobi Okugo's progression through the national team ranks. And while the 2014 World Cup cycle has come, and nearly gone, without a senior national team call-up for Okugo, the center back has positioned himself for a place on the radar for the cycle leading into the 2018 World Cup.
A lack of participation in major competitions at the youth level doesn't make it impossible for somebody like Okugo, the Philadelphia Union's 23-year-old midfielder-turned-defender to impress, but it does leave him slightly behind players, such as DeAndre Yedlin, who played for the United States at the 2013 U-20 World Cup.
"I feel like the next generation ... we're just trying to plug away, trying to creep at [the incumbents'] feet," Okugo told SI.com after the Union's 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. "Hopefully, we can get the call-up and challenge them."
He knows playing in an MLS back line currently leaking goals — conceding 13 times in the first 10 games of the season — won't help, no matter how deserving he may be of an opportunity with the U.S. Until that changes, his focus is firmly on Philadelphia.
"If you're part of a team that gets shutouts, then you're doing something right, whether it's getting blocks, getting your head on balls, whatever you can do," Okugo said. "I feel like if we get shutouts as a team, that means our defense is naturally doing well, and that would get me a call-up, God willing."
Okugo has made trips to Europe to play with a Generation adidas selection and completed two training stints with the Bundesliga's Freiburg, but he hasn't played on the highest international stages just yet. Despite that, the fifth-year pro commands respect through his leadership and ability to read the game, and he's often the loudest Union player on the field.
After playing for every youth national team through the U-23s and becoming the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year at UCLA as a midfielder, Philadelphia converted him into a center back in the last two seasons to plug a hole vacated by Danny Califf. He hasn't played in the midfield since.
"It's been an adjustment," Okugo said. "Midfield is still my favorite position ... but defense is good because you're able to see the field in terms of passing out of the back. It's always good when you're able to frustrate a forward, stopping him from scoring."
Moving to the back line allowed Okugo's natural leadership abilities to come out. It also plays to his strengths as a savvy organizer and simple distributor.
The Union coaching staff has given their prospect a long leash, along with 22-year-old goalkeeper Zac MacMath. Both continue to make their errors as young players in experience-based positions, but Okugo's improvement, in particular, is palpable.
"As a rookie, you want to talk and stuff, but you don't have the clout to tell an older guy to shift right or shift left," Okugo said. "Now I've got some games under my belt, I feel like I'm able to talk, able to give directions, especially as a center back. The coaches have given me pretty good accountability to take a leadership role within the team."
As a result, Okugo shoulders most of the burden to stymie Philadelphia's opposing forwards. In Seattle, his direct adversary was Obafemi Martins, one of many Nigerian internationals Okugo grew up watching as the son of two immigrants.
"I remember watching him when he made his debut for Inter Milan, and it was great to match up against him," Okugo said. "Unfortunately, he scored a goal, but it was surreal playing against him."
One of Okugo's mentors in Philadelphia has a similar background, with Nigerian parents and as a defensive midfielder who deputizes at center back. Maurice Edu filled in on defense a couple times in his career, most notably in the United States' 1-0 win over Mexico at Estadio Azteca in 2012.
A direct relationship with a player who has been where Okugo wants to be, playing for the U.S. in a World Cup, was missing until now, as no Union player until Edu was capped while playing in Philadelphia. Edu sat next to Okugo's in the away locker room at CenturyLink Field, and the two were roommates on the cross-country trip to play the Sounders.
"I'm constantly telling him to keep challenging himself, keep trying to get better every game. I think he's responded to these challenges every game; I think he's tried to improve himself, he's done well for himself and he's been a leader for us both vocally and by his play in the back," Edu said. "Just speaking to him, you can tell he wants to be on that [national] team. He wants to get a shot, and I think his time will definitely come."
Okugo's biggest need for improvement continues to be his 1-on-1 defensive ability. He tackles well, but his skill set is still that of a defensive midfielder who often tries to keep the ball close. If he can win the ball cleanly and distribute, that poses no problems, but he is still improving in do-or-die situations around his own goal when a simple clearance would do.
He'll want to become proficient in that area, since center back seems the most likely spot he can break into the senior national team. Okugo started for the U-14, U-17, U-20 and U-23 teams in midfield, where his simplicity made him one of the U.S.'s most reliable players. Now, he seems to be part of the next generation of potential U.S. defenders playing in Major League Soccer, along with Yedlin and Andrew Farrell. "Amobi has put himself in that position where he should be a guy that, if he can raise his game, should probably be included in that next cycle as a guy to be talking about," Union head coach John Hackworth said. "He still has some room to improve, and he has to do it first and foremost for his club and get that opportunity."