Bryan Okoh: Salzburg's U.S.-born teenager out to become Europe's next defensive star

Bryan Okoh NXGN GFXGetty/GOAL

At Red Bull Salzburg, the conveyor belt of attacking talent just keeps on turning.

Sadio Mane, Erling Haaland and Patson Daka have all used the Austrian side as a gateway towards Europe's biggest leagues. Karim Adeyemi will follow them this summer, as will Brenden Aaronson, in all likelihood. Teenage talent Benjamin Sesko may well do the same in 2023.

But at the other end of the pitch, Salzburg do not have an awful track record of nurturing defenders either.

Dayot Upamecano came through the ranks at the Red Bull Arena before, four years after leaving for RB Leipzig, he became a €42.5 million ($52m/£37m) signing for Bayern Munich.

Duje Caleta-Car, meanwhile, spent three years in the Salzburg lineup during his early 20s before becoming a Liverpool target with his performances for Marseille, while Marin Pongracic is spending the season at Borussia Dortmund, having also plied his trade for the Austrian champions during his early career.

That all bodes well, then, for the latest centre-back looking to break out at Salzburg, even if injury means his emergence has been put back a few months.

Bryan Okoh is currently recuperating from a ruptured cruciate ligament suffered in November, an injury that will rule him out of action for the remainder of the 2021-22 campaign.

That he suffered the injury while training with the Switzerland national team, having received his first call-up at the age of 18, should, however, illustrate just how much potential Okoh possesses.

He has already made his Salzburg first-team debut, marking the occasion with a goal against lower-league Kalsdorf in September's Austrian Cup tie, and been on the bench for both Champions League and Bundesliga matches, too.

A bright future beckons, then, for a player who was born in Houston, Texas to a Nigerian father and Congolese mother, meaning Okoh could represent four different teams at international level.

He has opted for Switzerland, though, having spent the vast majority of his childhood living in the Romandy region on the west side of the European nation.

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Okoh's first taste of formal football coaching came when he joined FC Espagnol Lausanne at the age of seven, before being enrolled into the academy at Swiss top-flight side Lausanne-Sport in 2016.

He spent three years with the seven-time national champions, before Salzburg agreed to pay around €2m to sign him as a 16-year-old in the summer of 2019, making him the most expensive Swiss player of his age in history.

"He had stood out with the national youth teams," ex-Lausanne sporting director, Pablo Iglesias, told 24 Heures, " and the proposals were already coming from everywhere: English clubs, German teams, Italian sides and one in Austria.

"We tried to keep him. We met with his family, along with Bob Ratcliffe (Lausanne's owner), to offer him things so that he would stay, but it was too late."

Salzburg's scouting department had got them to the front of the queue for one of Europe's most sought-after youngsters once again, and he was immediately thrown into the club's reserve side, FC Liefering, who play in the second division of Austrian footballers.

Okoh now has over 30 matches under his belt at that level, ensuring the 18-year-old will be ready for the rigours of the men's game once he returns to full fitness in the summer of 2022.

So what marks Okoh out from other centre-backs of his age?

"He is very physical, he battles well and is strong in the duels," Mauro Lustrinelli, the manager of Switzerland Under-21s, told 24 Heures.

"He defends well, but as a bonus, he is good in the build-up phase, thanks to the fact that he is comfortable with both feet. That, for a modern player, is an incredible advantage.”

That two-footedness and comfort in possession is something that scouts and coaches alike are desperate to have in their squads, meaning Okoh - who is not afraid to step out of defence and join in attacks - is likely to become a hot commodity in the coming years.

He also has strong character traits; Iglesias described him as being "polite, well-educated and has great family values. He is as strong on the field as he is at school."

All that adds up to Okoh being an elite talent, and one Salzburg are keen to continue moulding after handing the teenager a new four-year contract in the summer of 2021.

"I'm at Salzburg because they see something in me," Okoh told Tages-Anzeiger in October. "I want to show that they are right about that."

As long as spells on the sidelines injured do not become the norm for Okoh, then he is well on the way to doing just that.

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