Okugo making Union's roster decisions tougher
CHESTER, Pa. -- Amobi Okugo has been a good soldier and an even better defender.
The natural Union midfielder made the move to center back in early June to fill a positional need for a team criminally thin on defensive players. Making the most of his opportunity, the 21-year-old didn’t just participate, he excelled.
“I’m happy I could help the team when they needed me to step into the center back role because we were low on numbers,” said Okugo, the sixth-overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft who has started 25 games over three seasons with the Union. “I’m happy to be on the field and help the team get results.”
This elevated play, matched with high-profile signing Bakary Soumare’s Union debut on Sunday in place of international absence Carlos Valdes, means that coach John Hackworth and the Union staff are now forced into a tricky roster dance -- one that begins on Sunday in a road match against DC United at RFK Stadium.
“Amobi and I talk all the time and he knows he’s been very valuable as a center back,” said Hackworth. “For the last two months, that’s where he’s played. He hasn’t even been back in the midfield even in training. If we do decide to go that route, we have to make sure it’s the right decision. We will test that out in training and make sure we’re confident about that move before we do it.”
Okugo admitted that his inevitable move back to the midfield has been talked about but nothing has been solidified.
“[Moving back to the midfield] has been discussed but we’ve been focused on playing well and staying consistent,” said Okugo. “We’re focused on the team over my position or where I’m going to play.”
Although Okugo is happy to play wherever the team asks, he’d prefer to do so in the midfield, where he can push up and unleash his offensive potential. With Valdes expected to return from international duty, moving Okugo is an option the Union may seize.
“One of the great things about Amobi is his personality,” said Hackworth. “He’s versatile enough as a player, that when you ask him to do something, especially when it involves playing time, he says, 'Whatever you need.'"
Either way, the midfielder-turned-defender is not complaining.
“I’d be grateful to get an opportunity to play in the midfield, since that’s where I played for the majority of my career,” said Okugo. “We all try to push forward when we can, we have attack-minded players on our team.
“I’m comfortable in the midfield, that’s where I was drafted. Whatever coach asks of me, that’s what I’ll do.”
For obvious reasons, the Union want the best players available to man the back line. They are not in the business of playing favorites by contract size. So with Okugo’s exceptional vision, anticipation and athleticism, the Union would be hard-pressed to find a better defender on the team -- Soumare included. That leaves Okugo stuck between where the Union want him and where they need him.
“It’s my job to put the best team on the field that gives us the best possible chance of winning,” said Hackworth. “I’m always going to do that, though it might not be popular in our locker room, with the fans or with the media. When things don’t go right, I have to be held accountable for those decisions. The idea is to always play our best team. As long as we’re consistent about that, the players will understand it.”
And as it stands, Hackworth says the Union’s best team is one with Okugo and Valdes on the back line.
“Baky is going to be one of our most important players, and that will ultimately mean that we probably move Amobi back into the midfield,” said Hackworth. “For right now, I’m happy that Baky got back out there and got game time, and at the same time, if we go with a first-choice team, I think that Carlos and Amobi are the two center backs that have played the best.
“Both Carlos and Amobi have been very good, so that’s a challenge for Baky.”E-mail Ryan Bright at email@example.com