BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, December 1, 2010
As the US U-20 national team recently completed their participation in the Torneo de las Americas, they enjoyed a very strong performance by Amobi Okugo who was perhaps the team's best player during the week.
Okugo, 19, has been considered one of the more talented American players at this age group but has been unable to play regularly with the U-20's due to club conflicts with the Philadelphia Union. Now having returned to the team following a six month absence, he is happy to be back on the international stage and thinks things have gone well in camp.
"It's been good," Okugo told YA in Atlanta. "Everyone is coming in from different places and they are in different periods of the season so we just try to get the chemistry developed as quick as possible during training sessions and build familiarity within the team."
Since Okugo's last time with the U-20 national team in May, he has noticed a significant improvement in the depth of the team with the addition of several new players that give US U-20 head coach Thomas Rongen more options primarily in the attack.
"We now have a deep roster with the amount of attackers and midfielders we have," Okugo assessed. "We have a lot of different options whether it's starting or coming off the bench. We can keep the tempo of pressure and attack for 90 minutes. So hopefully we can just build on the roster towards qualifying and the World Cup."
This U-20 camp has also been a different one for Okugo because he arrived in Atlanta with a full MLS season now under his belt after being the sixth overall pick in the 2010 SuperDraft. While he didn't see as much playing time as he would have liked in 2010, he still managed to play in 11 first team games which is valuable experience for a player at the U-20 level.
"It is more experience," Okugo said of the value of his first season. "Coach [Rongen] wants me to bring my experience. I've been with the U-20's a couple cycles now. Now having one MLS season under my belt, I am bringing experience and leadership to the team. I see things differently."
Okugo was satisfied with his performance on the field and he is happy with the season-ending discussion he had with Union boss Peter Nowak in October. It left him with the achievable goal of earning far more playing time in his sophomore year.
"It was alright," Okugo assessed of his performance as a rookie. "I wish I could have played more but when I played I thought I took advantage of most of my opportunities. Coach Nowak gave me nothing but positive feedback. I am looking to build off my first season. [Coach Nowak] is good. I like him. On the field he knows what he's talking about. If you really pay attention to him, you'll learn a lot."
While Okugo is progressing in Philadelphia, less than 12 months earlier he was unsure of where to begin his professional career after just one NCAA season with UCLA. After evaluating the league for a full season, he is impressed with the quality of MLS and its potential to be become a top tier league.
"It's good," the Hayward, California native said of MLS. "Before the whole process of signing with MLS, I never really watched the league like that. Now being part of the league, it's really good. I'm glad it's growing. With the reserve league coming back, it means they are taking a bunch of strides to try to catch up to some of the bigger leagues."
Shortly before Okugo joined the U-20 national team in Atlanta, he watched two of his teammates in Gale Agbossoumonde and Juan Agudelo make their surprising debuts for the US senior national team under head coach Bob Bradley. As he watched Agudelo score the game winner for the national team against South Africa, Okugo set a clear goal for himself as to when he too could make the big jump.
"It was great. It means we are real close," Okugo said of watching Agudelo and Agbossoumonde with the national team. "Coach Rongen and Coach Bradley have a really good basis of communication so if you do well in a couple of U-20 camps, he might put your word in there depending on what players coach Bradley needs and you might get a call-up. Hopefully I may get a call-up in the next two years. That's my goal – before I'm 21."
The U-20 class that includes Okugo, Agbossoumonde, and Agudelo is not only impressing Bradley but it is also gaining the attention of many observers who feel that this team can contend next year at the U-20 World Cup in Colombia.
"I think we can be good," Okugo said of the team's potential. "A lot of people are hyping us and we just have to live up to the hype. We have to be able to back it up. We just have to be able to gel among ourselves and be able to play."
One of the reasons why Okugo is optimistic for the U-20 team heading into World Cup qualifying in April is because of the coaching style of Rongen. It's is Rongen's Dutch style of coaching that emphasizes possession and creativity that fits Okugo's way of playing along with many of the other players on this team.
"I enjoy playing under his style," Okugo said of Rongen's approach to the game. "Both coaches [Nowak and Rongen] like to play attacking style soccer with possession, lots of ball movement and player movement. I like it because I am the type of player that plays it simple with passing the ball and trying to keep possession. It's really good for me and with the players we have this cycle, we all like to keep the ball on the ground and it's really fun to play under him."
At the Torneo de Las Americas, Okugo played in his usual holding midfield position against Mexico but he also played as a central defender against Colombia. Okugo was one of the best players for the US team at each position as the Americans played to 1-1 draws in each of the games followed by losses in penalties. Okugo's versatility will give Rongen different approaches in the important games that are ahead.
As far as central defense, it is not Okugo's preferred position but he is happy to contribute wherever Rongen needs him for the good of the team.
"It's alright. It's not bad," Okugo said of playing central defense. "I'd rather play holding midfielder but centerback is not like I'm dying. I'm not going to cry to the coach if I am playing there. If I play there I have to do what the coach asks of me. If I can keep doing well for the team at centerback or wherever it may be, I'll play and sacrifice."
In central defense against the talented Colombia squad, Okugo partnered well with Duke University's Sebastien Ibeagha who also helped to shut down most of the Colombian attacks. Okugo had never played with him before but he came away impressed.
"He was good," Okugo said of Ibeagha. "I knew his older brother from residency. He's Nigerian just like me so we get along pretty well. We work well together."
Prior to the game against Colombia, Rongen awarded the captain's armband to Okugo who was honored to have the trust of his coach.
"It's always an honor to be captain of your national team," Okugo concluded. "I wear it with pride and am humble about it."