Okoli Is an American Attacker Awaiting His Chance

Matt Kremkau

By CHRISTIAN ARAOS

imagesORANGEBURG, N.Y. — Ugo Okoli mistimed his headers and placed his finishes at training Wednesday. His teammates rode off afterward leaving Okoli to continue working with the coaching staff, waiting for the fleeting chance to make the most of his return to Major League Soccer.

Okoli is back in MLS after a year-long stint at FC Cincinnati where he won the United Soccer League Golden Boot with 16 goals in 29 games. He was the third homegrown player signed by the Seattle Sounders, but made only three appearances for their first team before being traded to New England at the 2015 draft. He made five appearances for the Revolution before he was waived in 2016. A year later, he returns with New York City FC looking to reap the rewards of last year’s work.

“I know I could make an impact in this league,” Okoli, 24, who is from Federal Way, Wash., told EoS. “I was a rookie at age 19-20. It’s something I’ve always planned on doing but sometimes for an American attacker in this country, you’ve got to put in more work, you’ve got to find ways to prove yourself. I thought I did that last year and I thought this was the perfect opportunity to help the team win games.”

The net and Okoli’s potential are the same. (Though his given name is Sean, Okoli prefers going by his middle name.) They are both unfulfilled at the moment. Okoli was a United States youth international and a standout forward at Wake Forest University, where he was named first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference in his junior season with nine goals. But he hasn’t scored in MLS. Like his predecessor at NYCFC, Patrick Mullins, Okoli hasn’t had many opportunities to play, let alone score. Mullins never had to go to USL, but Okoli said that time there was crucial for his confidence and left him with a chip on his shoulder.

“I’ve been working hard for a long time,” he said. “I think last year was big for me in terms of getting games and showing what I can do on the field. Patrick [Vieira] and the club and New York City really saw something that could help this team. I’m working hard every day and making sure I can make an impact.”

Okoli was the last player on the field on Wednesday. As his teammates met with children from an academy or spoke with reporters, he set up cones in front of an empty goal and worked on first-time finishing, with his coach and assistants providing crosses. He took at least a dozen attempts, each time attempting to use his hips and legs to redirect crosses. Sometimes the ball went into the roof of the net, sometimes over it. Though it was far from refined, Coach Patrick Vieira said he was encouraged by what he saw.

MATT KREMKAU

“I want him to keep working like he did today,” Vieira said. “He was really lively, he worked really hard and scored some goals. I want him to do that more often. Ugo has got some talent but he needs to understand that talent is not enough, he needs to work harder. I want him to do it every single day and that is how he is going to make the 18 and that is how he is going to play.”

Okoli has not made the game-day roster of 18 since March. Since NYCFC is a technical team that plays in a 4-3-3, opportunities for center forwards are scarce. Even more so when the incumbent is David Villa.

Okoli said he’s been watching Villa’s movement off and on the ball inside the box but also Villa’s demeanor in an attempt to absorb his savvy and professionalism. An opportunity to replace Villa could come Saturday at Columbus if Villa’s illness prevents him from making the trip. It could come in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup or in any of the regular-season games ahead. It might not be a second chance, but Okoli said he’s ready to take it, whenever it may come.

“Football — it’s a very interesting sport,” he said. “You’ve got to go through a lot of ups and downs during your career. I’ve had to experience some of that but I’m very blessed and humbled to be able to continue to play. I’m just going to focus on things on the field and let God handle the rest.

“It’s a long season and you have to make sure you have the right mentality from the first day to the last day. I’m just making sure my mentality is right and I believe I’m ready so whenever the time comes I’m ready whether it’s tomorrow or in November.”