Okugo key for Union against Montreal

Amobi Okugo could become one of the league's best center backs, the Union's manager says.
Amobi Okugo could become one of the league's best center backs, the Union's manager says. (JAMIE SABAU / Getty Images)
Posted: March 29, 2014

The Union players huddled near the sideline with arms around each other, waiting for their captain.

It was the team's home opener two weeks ago, and Amobi Okugo was the Union's fill-in captain. He greeted the referees and the opposing captain, then rushed to join his team. The pregame huddle was nothing new to Okugo, but now all eyes were on him.

The captain wanted to "say something perfect."

"I said, 'Come on, uh uh,' " said Okugo. "I didn't say anything, I started choking, and we all started laughing."

The 23-year-old tried to persuade his teammates that he fumbled the speech on purpose. It would take pressure off them, he said. It was Okugo's only hiccup on the lone day he wore the captain's armband. His defensive effort helped the Union shut out New England.

Okugo will not be wearing the armband Saturday - it returned last week to Brian Carroll - but the Union will rely heavily on their central defender against visiting Montreal.

The Impact return last season's 20-goal scorer, Marco Di Vaio, from suspension. It is unclear whether the team will use a two-striker formation and pair Di Vaio up top with Lancaster native Andrew Wenger. Union manager John Hackworth said his team is preparing for both options.

Okugo transitioned from midfielder to defense in 2012. He said he has found comfort in his new position, seeing plays before they happen. Okugo played as a central midfielder almost his entire career, including long stints with the youth U.S. national teams. The biggest adjustment was dealing with the physical play of opposing forwards, which Okugo said he has mastered.

Hackworth said Okugo continues to develop each season and can continue to grow into one of the league's best center backs.

That growth could land Okugo on the U.S. men's team. He turned 23 this month, making him ineligible for the under-23 national team. He said he is unsure of his future with the national team, which he has been a part of since 2006.

"I feel like I've been with every national team setup from the very beginning," Okugo said. "So I feel that [the men's team] is the next step. I just have to keep playing well, and hopefully that comes."

The first 5,000 fans Saturday will receive an Okugo bobblehead. He did not know about the giveaway until a fan alerted him on Twitter this week. Another fan told the five-year veteran that the bobblehead "makes him officially a professional."

Okugo said the doll doesn't really look like him.

"It doesn't really have my features," he said. "But I guess it's all right."


mbreen@phillynews.com

@matt_breen

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