Player Spotlight: Amobi Okugo ready to leave his mark with Orlando City

The 23-year-old is a key part of Orlando City's inaugural MLS roster after spending five seasons with the Philadelphia Union.

Amobi Okugo wasn't in on the ground floor with Orlando City when the club kicked off four years ago in the third-tier USL. He wasn't on Adrian Heath's teams that won two league titles and three regular-season crowns. He's not a holdover, like Luke Boden or Kevin Molino or Darwin Ceren.

He's a hired gun, of sorts — one of many veterans brought in to ease the club's transition from the lower levels to MLS. But that hasn't stopped the 23-year-old from forging a connection with that Orlando City era. Discussing club history that predates his acquisition, Okugo rarely refers to the team in the third person — "we," you'll notice, is prominent in his vocabulary.

GOAL'S MLS SEASON PREVIEWS

Goal North America is providing previews of all 20 MLS clubs ahead of the 2015 campaign. Here are the teams we've broken down thus far:

D.C. United | New England Revolution
Vancouver Whitecaps | Columbus Crew
Seattle Sounders | FC Dallas
Houston Dynamo | Philadelphia Union
Portland Timbers | Toronto FC
Colorado Rapids | Montreal Impact
Real Salt Lake | LA Galaxy
Sporting KC | New York Red Bulls
Chicago Fire | San Jose Earthquakes
Orlando City

"We've been a USL team since 2011, and we've had the same coach, the same philosophy," Okugo told Goal USA. "We've built a winning identity, and I think that's going to help us."

The Philadelphia Union traded Okugo to Orlando on Dec. 8 — the day after the MLS Cup final. After five seasons and over 100 starts in Union colors, the PPL Park fan favorite was moving on to the next challenge.

Off the field, Okugo is already warming up to Orlando. He has embraced the walkability of his Lake Eola Park residence downtown, and he wryly points out "the weather is not too shabby." After coaching youths in his spare time in Philadelphia, Okugo is making plans to continue that pursuit in Florida.

"He's always interested in trying new things and just getting to know people," said Orlando forward Danny Mwanga, Okugo's onetime teammate and roommate with Philadelphia. "He's a humble and thankful guy."

To Orlando City, Okugo is a key building block in the club's foundation. This experience represents a bit of deja vu for Okugo, who was a rookie with the Union when they entered MLS as an expansion team in 2010. But he points out he wasn't much of a factor on that side, starting just four matches.

Eventually, Okugo would emerge — making 10 starts in 2011, then 24 the following year. Now he is an MLS regular, having started 63 matches over the past two seasons. Yet with Okugo's contract expiring, the Union declined to negotiate a new deal before shipping him to Orlando for allocation money and a second-round draft pick.

"They never really made that next step to try to get me to stay, but that's their plan," Okugo said. "I can't hold that against them and I'm in a better situation with Orlando, so it worked out for both parties. There are no ill feelings."

Okugo acknowledges he wasn't surprised by the development. Turnover was one of the few constants during his Union tenure, which saw the team make just one playoff appearance. As Peter Nowak, John Hackworth and current coach Jim Curtin each took the reins, the club found itself in a constant state of flux.

"I just feel like Philly as an organization, they don't really stick to one thing," Okugo said. "When we first started out, we built around Seba Le Toux, Danny Mwanga, Danny Califf. The next thing you know, they're gone.

"We were successful in our second year, with the stingy defense and a solid team — then we got rid of that team. Then we built through the youth: myself, Jack [McInerney], Zac [MacMath], Michael [Farfan], Sheanon [Williams]. We had a good group. Now how many guys are there from that list of names?"

The answer is one: Williams, who remains the Union's right back. In Okugo's case, there was indecisiveness about his best position. Drafted as a defensive midfielder, Okugo saw himself converted to center back in 2013, then moved back to the midfield halfway through last season.

With Orlando, there has been no such ambiguity. Although Heath counts Okugo's versatility as an asset, the player was exclusively deployed in his preferred central midfield role throughout preseason. With Brazilian playmaker Kaka pulling the strings and Brek Shea attacking from left back in Heath's 4-2-3-1 formation, Okugo will be relied on to win plenty of midfield battles as Orlando commits numbers forward.

"It's a lot of responsibility for the D-mids, but I embrace it," Okugo said. "In our system, with three attacking mids and the overlapping fullbacks, I have to always be an option on the ball. That's why I like center mid more — you get more touches on the ball instead of putting out fires."

Added Heath: "He really wants to get better at his position. ... The one great thing is his ability to come in and want to work and want to get better and find out what we want for him."

While Okugo has plenty of respect for Orlando City's past, he's very much intent on carving his own legacy with the club. The path from seldom-used rookie to steady starter in Philadelphia is over.

He, like Orlando City, is ready for a new era.

"I feel like I've proven myself in MLS," Okugo said. "Now I'm trying to take that next step as a player and actually be known. When you think of Orlando City, you normally think of Kaka. But hopefully you'll say, 'Oh yeah, they have Kaka but they also have Amobi and Brek.'

"I just want to be one of those guys that people know about."

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