Heading into their inaugural Major League Soccer season, Orlando City SC have acquired a genuine asset in midfielder Amobi Okugo, with the 23-year-old possessing experience of the league, ambassadorial qualities, as well as a readiness to step in if ever he should be needed for some pre-game pace-setting.
Just 19 years old when he first took to the field in MLS with the Philadelphia Union, Amobi was a rookie on a professional team in its infancy. In five seasons, the Californian rose to the fore for the Union, had positional switches, three coaches, high points and frustrations, but what is undeniable is the ability he showed and the mutual respect and affection between him and the supporters.
A natural holding midfielder but with added extras to his game, Amobi has the tag of ‘young veteran’, with over a century of MLS appearances to his name already. As 2014 wore on, it was expected that his next destination would be a European club, but it was one of the league’s newcomers, Orlando City, who acquired him from Philadelphia in December in exchange for allocation money and a second round 2016 MLS SuperDraft pick.
After their USL PRO success, which included three 1st-place finishes in the regular season and two Championship crowns, the new era began for real this weekend just gone. All the planning and hard work since the club was announced as a new MLS team in November 2013 came to fruition in a sense as 62,510 gathered at the Citrus Bowl for the opener at home to fellow expansion team New York City FC on Sunday (March 8th) night.
The signing of ex-AC Milan and Real Madrid star Kaká has understandably taken many headlines and the Brazilian’s deflected free-kick rescued a point with a 1-1 draw on gameday one. However, Adrian Heath has a good amount of high-level international and domestic experience in his squad, with one of those a U.S. international who is already making his mark, and not just down the left side, as Amobi explains.
“Right now, in Orlando City, Brek Shea’s the team DJ and he’s been playing some good hits. He’s got this playlist by this famous DJ, DJ Russke, and all the guys on the team like it, so it’s been going well so far.”
The club’s ethos is to ‘defy expectations’ and Amobi was a player and character they identified to help them do just that. The 2009 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year at UCLA, he signed a Generation Adidas contract after that year in college and was drafted in the first round (sixth overall pick) by Philadelphia in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
The one-time IMG Academy player started to play much more of an important role in his third season with the Union, in 2012, and added three goals and three assists in 32 games the year after. He scored two more, with a pair of assists, in 2014, and prior to his switch to Orlando he was the last Philadelphia player to have been with the team from the beginning of its inaugural campaign in 2010.
With amiable personal traits to go with his ability on the field, Amobi is also musically-minded, meaning he has taken the chance to showcase his playlist for the team on occasions during his early career. He offers some insight into the artists and genres that light the fire for him.
“Yeah, I’ve been the team DJ a couple times. Most recently, with Philadelphia, Maurice Edu was the team DJ for the most part, or myself or Ethan White.
“Right now, my favourite artist would probably be Drake, just because I like his music, I like his beats; I like his whole concept right now and his whole project. Overall, my favourite artist of all-time is 2Pac because I feel like he was more than just a rapper.
“He was like a poet and his messages were so meaningful, so whenever I can just vibe out to some 2Pac, I do that. In terms of genres of music, I’m really open to anything: rap, hip-hop, r&b, oldies, rock, house.
“If there’s a good beat, a good meaning, good lyrics, I’m usually listening to it.”
As Amobi mentioned, he, Maurice Edu and Ethan White were among the biggest music lovers at Philadelphia. U.S. international midfielder Edu switched to a role at the heart of the Union backline last season, while Amobi reverted to his natural position in central midfield, having previously been moved into central defence.
Former Stoke City and Glasgow Rangers man Edu was interviewed on here last summer and within his music discussion he told how Amobi and Ethan White had become his partners in crime when it came to blasting out some vocals for fun. Amobi fills in some more of the details around his friendship with Edu and ex-D.C. United defender White.
“Yeah, so myself, Maurice Edu and Ethan White, we basically rode everywhere together, so in the car we would listen to music and sing it out. One of the days we sang a song, a cappella, so you might see a little mixtape coming out in the near future!
“It was just fun and games and we all have a love for music so it was another way for us to bond as a team and as friends. Those car rides had a lot of vocals!”
Turning 24 later this month (March 13th), Sacramento-raised Amobi played basketball into his teens up until his soccer career progressed to the point of going into residency with the National Team at youth level. A former student at both Rio Americano and Jesuit High School, he was a First-Team Parade All-American in 2008 and 2009 and has since represented the U.S. at various levels, with a senior cap something he would naturally love to gain in the future.
He describes every decision he makes as ‘calculated’ and a strong mentality will be extremely important as he and his Orlando teammates attempt to exceed the level of success that many feel the Lions can achieve in their inaugural MLS season. As the interviews with players over the past four years on this site have shown, music can hold much more significance to some than others, but it certainly has its place in Amobi’s life.
“I think it plays a pretty big role. Depending on the mood I’m in, I’ll listen to a certain genre or a select group of different artists because their songs mean so much to me, especially if I’m going through a different period of time in my life.
“I’ll get on my playlist and hit the shuffle button and just vibe out to an album or a different track that I know will help me get through a certain time period or just keep me motivated.”
Although he comes from California, Amobi’s parents are Nigerian and he recalls watching with his family as a five-year-old as the Super Eagles won Olympic gold in the U.S. in 1996. When it came to his earliest experience of owning music however, it was an artist with links to the West Coast he went for, but someone much younger than the likes of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre!
“The first I bought, me and my little brother begged my dad to get us Bow Wow’s first CD. It was when we first started watching TV and getting into it.
“I then started growing up and I was able to be more involved in music and I drastically enhanced my music library!”
One of Amobi’s current teammates, goalkeeper Tally Hall, received a definite seal of disapproval for his tune choices from his Houston Dynamo counterpart Giles Barnes on here in June 2013. However, despite a moment of pondering, Amobi opted not to single any of his career colleagues out when the subject of questionable taste was brought up.
“Who can I call out right now?! To be fair, everyone’s been pretty good; you can’t really knock anyone’s taste in music because you can connect in so many different ways, whether it’s country, rock, r&b, oldies, rap.
“I feel like all my friends and teammates put me in touch with different groups of music or genres that I’ve come to appreciate all types.”
Although 2011 was to be the only playoff season, the five years with the Union were packed with memories for Amobi nevertheless. The 2011 run ended with defeat to Houston in the Eastern Conference Semifinal but that year included Amobi’s standout team memory, as Roger Torres hit the winner in front of a raucous PPL Park crowd to see off New York Red Bulls during the regular season.
One of those he worked with at Philadelphia was a player who featured at the back and also in a forward role. This towering 26-year-old was a Union player during the 2013 and 2014 seasons and he was the one who immediately came to mind when Amobi identified the most memorable singing performances from those he has played alongside.
“My former teammate, Aaron Wheeler, he had a nice little YouTube video of him singing with his guitar. That’s a good five minutes of your time if you ever have the chance; it was a funny little a cappella he did.
“So far, he tops the list.”
As a child, one of Amobi’s heroes was two-time African Footballer of the Year and former Nigeria and Arsenal forward Kanu. In 2011, he got his own experience of European football as he spent time training with SC Freiburg of the Bundesliga and the aforementioned Maurice Edu has been on hand to share much advice on what he has picked up in his career at home and abroad up to now.
If Amobi was to ever put his vocal range to the test and record a cover version of a track, he is in no doubt as to which career teammates would be joining him.
“It would have to be myself, Maurice and Ethan, because, I mean, we’ve already got a group! I know we could sing the part so the song would probably be ‘Candy’ by New Edition.
“We’ve already got that in the bag so I think that would be the song!”
In his year at UCLA, Amobi’s major was Business Administration and he is currently working toward completing that degree. In addition to his playing duties at Philadelphia he also took time out to coach youngsters and it is something he will look to carry on while in Florida.
Wearing the number 5 this season, Amobi heads into his sixth MLS campaign. As well as having the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year on his side at Orlando, he is joined by the likes of his old roommate and former Philadelphia, Portland Timbers and Colorado Rapids forward, Danny Mwanga.
It has been quite a journey for the club since Phil Rawlins’ 2010 takeover saw the relocation of the Austin Aztex and the campaign to ‘#FillTheBowl’ was successful, as 62,510 came out for this season’s opener with New York City FC. For Amobi, the early days have been a pleasure, both on and off the field, as he begins to get down to business.
“Being in Orlando’s been great; the city’s really embraced us as a soccer club and we know we have a point to prove as the MLS season starts. I think we’re gonna defy expectations and that’s our team philosophy and motto.
“It’s been great and I’m finally settled Downtown. The city’s a great location with the lakes, it’s a walkable city, nice restaurants – you name it.
“From a soccer standpoint, all the guys are excited to really get this thing rolling.”
Former Everton midfielder Adrian Heath has a number of British-born players on his roster, with Staffordshire-born Northern Ireland striker Martin Paterson on loan from Huddersfield Town, as well as Republic of Ireland defender and Birmingham native Sean St. Ledger.
As with many locker rooms these days, Orlando have a real mix of nationalities, so the question is, has Amobi found the Brits even more difficult to understand than the other overseas players on the team?!
“No, they’re not that hard to understand! It’s funny because depending on what part of England or the UK they’re from they have a certain type of accent and I think it’s really good.
“They bring a wealth of experience and knowledge because most of them played in the EPL and that’s probably the best league in the world right now. They’ve been a great group of individuals to learn from and be a part of this team.”
According to Amobi’s mother, his forename means ‘God will lead you’, and who knows if his path will soon take him into Jurgen Klinsmann’s National Team squad? For the time being, all his efforts are geared toward pushing Orlando forward, so let’s end by getting some first-hand insight into some of the players he has enjoyed working with in the first few years of his career.
As every player on the site is asked to do, Amobi steps into the role of fantasy 5-a-side team player-manager for this one, selecting four of his current or former teammates to join him. He begins with a player currently on loan to Colorado Rapids from Philadelphia and the stopper in question is someone he knows well from his younger days in the National Team setup.
“One keeper: I’ll start with my boy, Zac MacMath. I’ve played with him since I was 13 and I know what he’s capable of.
“One defender: I’ll go with Kofi Sarkodie from Houston Dynamo. I can always rely on him for keeping a shutout.
“Another midfielder with me would be Maurice Edu. At forward, I would pick… oh, well I just started playing with Kaka, so he’s not a bad shout!”
To catch each of these interviews, follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes
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