BRIAN SCIARETTA - Monday, January 25, 2010
As the US U20 National team began the 2011 cycle with a camp in California last month, one of players who will most likely be a very important figure as the team builds towards the 2011 U20 World Cup in Colombia is midfielder Amobi Okugo.
Last month, Okugo announced he would leave UCLA after just one year to begin his professional career on the domestic front in MLS. He was quickly offered a Generation Adidas contract and was selected by the Philadelphia Union with the sixth overall pick in the league's 2010 SuperDraft. He was also the third highest American selected.
Now Okugo, at just 18 years old, will look to become a key player on the Union who will be competing in their debut season in MLS. He views this as a challenge and is both determined to help the team succeed and continue to grow as a player.
"My goals are to get as much playing time as possible and help my team in any way I can; whether coming off the bench or starting," Okugo told YA. "Hopefully we can make the playoffs in our first season I feel confident even though our team is young that we will do well."
While being in a professional environment will him develop, Okugo feels that his work ethic will be the key factor that will allow him to successfully meet the challenges that lie ahead.
"It always helps to play against older and more experienced guys," the Hayward, California native said. "But development also comes down to the player work ethic and getting games"
Okugo is currently with the US U20 team in Mexico where they are taking part in the prestigious 2010 Copa Chivas tournament. Okugo begins this cycle having spent significant time with various US youth national teams in the past. He played occasionally with the U20 team last cycle but did not make the World Cup team which failed to advance out of its group at last year's World Cup in Egypt.
Okugo is optimistic with what he has seen so far from the group of players that has played so far with this U20 team. The most notable difference he sees between last cycle and this cycle is the increased presence of professionals.
"Compared with the last cycle one main thing would probably be the passion for the game a lot of players from our group are already or about to be professionals," Okugo explained. "So you can already tell a majority of these players are very serious about the game of soccer. Everyone brings their own qualities to the team."
Even though the presence of professionals should make the team strong, Okugo feels that it is still far too early to predict how good they will be.
"Coach Rongen is just trying to gel everyone together," Okugo stressed. "It is still early in the cycle. On paper this cycle is strong but we haven't been tested yet."
The 2010 Copa Chivas will be the first serious competition for the US U20 team this cycle. At the tournament they will face the Brazilian U20 team as well as the youth team from Costa Rican club, Sasprissa, and the youth teams from Mexican clubs Pachuca, Tigres, and Atlas. Okugo feels that the tournament will provide the young US team with a chance to both succeed and improve.
"Whenever we go to a tournament our main objective is to win but as a team we also want to develop a greater understanding for each other and constantly improve our soccer," Okugo said of the Copa Chivas. "I think we will do well. We have to adjust to the different fields and weather but this is a mostly a collection of guys [born in 1992] and they know each other very well, so I'm confident."
The 2010 Copa Chivas will also mark international coaching debut for former US international, Eric Wynalda. A veteran of the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, Wynalda is still considered one of the best forwards the USA has ever produced. He finished his international career with 34 goals in 107 appearances for the Stars and Stripes.
Okugo has said that having Wynalda on the coaching staff has been a very good experience for the team. He also appreciates Rongen's style of frequently having former US players serve as assistant coaches during the course of a cycle.
"Whenever a former pro of Coach Eric's caliber comes into the coaching staff, everyone is very happy. He will be a great asset to seek advice for not only the forwards, but rest of the team as well," Okugo said of what Wynalda brings to the team. "Coach Rongen usually tries to bring a former player to every one of his camps."
Leading the US U20 team through this cycle and into next year's World Cup as well as helping the Philadelphia Union establish themselves as an MLS force will be the clear goals for Okugo over the next few years. Further out on the horizon however, Okugo has set very lofty professional goals for himself.
"My main goal would be to play in one of the top four leagues and at least get a UEFA or Champions league trophy," Okugo concluded.