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Q & A: Austin Bold Midfielder and NorCal Native Amobi Okugo

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition, we spoke to Austin Bold midfielder Amobi Okugo. After a standout club career for San Juan Soccer Club, Okugo moved onto the IMG Soccer Academy while in residence with the U.S. Youth National Team. From there, he played one year at UCLA before being drafted 6th overall by the Philadelphia Union. Since he started his professional career, he’s made nearly 200 league appearances for six different clubs. He currently plays for the USL’s Austin Bold.

NorCal: How was your experience growing up and playing in Northern California?

Okugo: My experience was great, it was a competitive environment. This was before academy so you just had your powerhouse clubs: Santa Rosa, Mustang, Santa Clara Sporting, a couple of other teams here and there but it was fun to play in those tournaments because you knew you were in for a battle, especially at that young age.

NorCal: You succeeded enough to be called into residency with the U.S. Youth National Team. What was that experience like and do you think it’s a positive or negative that it doesn’t exist anymore?

Okugo: I wouldn’t change anything with what happened in my youth career. I think that residency was one of the greatest things that could have happened to me at that time, being exposed to that environment on a daily basis. Obviously things have changed now because kids are able to be exposed to that type of environment closer to home in a more economical matter. For me, personally, residency was the greatest thing. To not only be able to travel the world but play at that level with the top 40 guys (in my age group) on a daily basis, it was a game changer. Residency isn’t going to help every athlete because some develop at a different pace, some at that age aren’t ready for that commitment. If I were to be asked by someone who wants to be a professional soccer player, I would say yeah, you gotta do some sort of residency, some sort of environment to compete and get better.

NorCal: With that being said, there are so many players, probably a ton who you played with, who are at that high level when they’re 15, 16, 17, but don’t end up making it to the professional game. What’s the difference between those who make it and those who don’t and what did you do to make sure that you became a professional?

Okugo: It’s a combination of things, it’s timing, it’s discipline…you can be good at 13, 14, but then when you get to 15, 16, 17, people catch up to you in terms of physical abilities so if you’re not working on that technical aspect of your game, the tactical aspect of your game because you’re cutting corners because you’re faster or stronger than anybody, it ends up catching up to you. For me, just that environment (was important). Playing in NorCal, I did State ODP, Regional ODP, all that stuff, but when I was able to go to the national team, it was a whole different ballgame because you’re not longer out-and-out the best player. When I got exposed to that, it grew my hunger to get better and compete and be where some of the guys ahead of me were. When I was done with my residency program, I came back to Sacramento and I was still yearning for that type of competition. Luckily I had a great youth coach, coach Rubin Mora, who had me play with his men’s league team when I was 16, 17-years-old. I was playing with grown men. Even though it may have not been the best pace, playing with older guys who don’t care how young you are and want to foul you because they think you’re wasting your time. That helped my development. Luckily I was with the youth national teams at the time as well so still being able to compete at a high level on a month-to-month basis, because that’s how often I was traveling with the U18 and U20 national teams, that helped. But some guys at that age aren’t exposed to youth national teams. From a prospective of getting games, which is really good now — there’s games everywhere — but just high-quality games help. They help with your development and helps you showcase yourself. And you never know, all it takes is one game to change the whole trajectory of your career.

NorCal: Players like you and, famously, Clint Dempsey got a ton of experience by playing in men’s league games. How important is it for younger players, who are excelling with amongst their peers, to go and do something like that?

Okugo: I feel like it’s really important especially if the game is too easy for you. It’s like when people say that if you’re the smartest person in the room, find another room. You can apply that to soccer. If you’re just bullying people on the field, find people who are going to bully you. For me, it forced me to play quicker, it forced me to play smarter. I remember the first men’s league game I played someone literally two-footed me from behind. After the game, my dad was like, “that’s what you get!” It was different, understanding that aspect of it, that helped me as well. But also, when I was playing with coach Ruben, because back then you only practiced two or three times a week, so I was practicing with the younger age group and that was another thing that helped me too because the younger guys look up to you in the sense of like, “oh, he’s on the national team, so I’ve got to go in and beat him.” So they try extra hard against you, so that understanding of someone is always trying to take your spot, someone is always trying to bring you down, that’s helpful too.

NorCal: You’ve been a professional about a decade now. Since you came into MLS with the Philadelphia Union, how has the professional soccer landscape changed in the United States, if at all?

Okugo: It’s changed tremendously in terms of the growth of the game and the exposure. Not only is the game everywhere on TV, but the amount of kids playing, the amount of kids with an understanding of how soccer works (has grown). I would say the talent has gotten better top-to-bottom, but the talent at the top level hasn’t really changed if that makes sense. The top guys growing up when I was growing up, they were just as good as the top guys now, but the bottom guys from when I was growing up, compared to the bottom guys now, it’s night and day in terms of technique, the understanding of the game, and being able to break into teams.

NorCal: You’re still an active professional, but everything is suspended because of COVID-19. What are you doing to stay fit and stay on top of your game so that when soccer comes back, you won’t miss a beat?

Okugo: Luckily our coaching staff has given us a training program and luckily I’m back in Sacramento with my family so every morning my brothers and I train. My youngest brother plays soccer and my middle brother used to play soccer so we get our workout in, we get some touches in. No, I’m not going to be able to get game fit right now, but just keeping that baseline of fitness is going to help me so when we do eventually go back, the adjustment is not as great.

NorCal: What advice would you have for a youth player who wants to still improve right now, given that no one can train with their teams?

Okugo: This is where you get creative. I think it’s a blessing in disguise because this new generation, I’m not trying to talk down on them, but it’s all like you have to have a trainer and everything is specialized. No one just goes to the park or goes to kick a ball against a wall. This is going to force people to get creative, force people to stay disciplined with themselves because if you didn’t have practice four times a week, would you honestly be practicing four times a week? That’s the difference between my journey growing up and now because now you automatically have practice four times a week, where we had practice twice or three times a week. The other days, we had to do it on our own. How disciplined are you going to be in training yourself? How creative are you going to be in coming up with different drills? All of it adds up and the more you put in, the more you’re going to receive.