LAKE MARY, Fla. — At just 23-years-old, Orlando City midfielder Amobi Okugo had some options this winter when his contract with the Philadelphia Union came to an end.
Drawing interest from a handful of clubs in Europe, as well as some in MLS, on top of keeping contact with the Union, who never made the last remaining piece from their 2010 Expansion Draft class an offer by the way, he could have easily left MLS to pursue his dream of playing overseas.
However, on December 8, two days before the Expansion Draft, Orlando City acquired the defensive midfielder for allocation money, getting themselves a big MLS-proven piece to sit right in front of the defense and behind a very skilled attacking midfield.
“Coach Heath and Paul McDonough had a great pitch.” Okugo said at Orlando City Media Day on Friday. “Coach Heath experienced it in Europe; he sat me down and clarified with my agent that he knows Europe is still a big goal of mine, but he felt I wasn’t utilized as best as I could have been in Philly, and he said, ‘if you come here, you’re going to have a great situation, a great organization, you’re going to be in a place where you can grow as a player,’ and down the line if that opportunity comes around he’s going to do everything in his power to make that happen.
“When he came to me and my agent with that whole spiel I couldn’t really say no to this opportunity. Orlando has a great set up, and I don’t think me parents want me to leave home.”
Okugo projects to be a starter for Heath on March 8 against New York City FC. The next few weeks will find who the second defensive mid in Heath’s 4-2-3-1 system will be. Darwin Ceren looked like the favorite to win the job, but it now appears the club has pegged unannounced Colombian signing Cristian Higuita as the starter next to Okugo, as MLSSoccer.com’s Andrew Wiebe wrote in a great behind-the-scenes piece from the MLS SuperDraft.
Okugo spent five seasons with the Union, starting 101 of 117 league games since being drafted No. 6 overall as a Generation Adidas player out of UCLA in 2010. Not many players can boast that kind of experience at such a young age, and because of that Lions manager Adrian Heath mentioned him as one of the players he’s hoping to see take a leadership role within the squad this season, along with other guys like Kaka, Donovan Ricketts, and Aurelien Collin.
“I feel like a young veteran. Coming in Coach Heath kind of counted on me for that.” Okugo said. “It’s kind of like my position — as a center-mid, you’re suppose to be able to transition from defense to offense, and with my experience in the league and my age, I can be the transition between the younger guys and the older guys. And I’m hoping to do that because we have to start out on the right foot.”