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Okugo Previews His Rookie MLS Season and the Upcoming Dallas Cup

Just a day away from the opening game of the 2010 Major League Soccer season, caught up with Philadelphia Union rookie and youth national team veteran Amobi Okugo. The 19-year-old midfielder is preparing for his first professional game on Thursday evening in Seattle, after which he will meet up with the U.S. U-20 MNT for a clash with Mexico in the opening game of the Dallas Cup. We asked the Sacramento, Calif., native to preview both the Union’s first-ever game and the USA-Mexico showdown. What has the transition been like from a storied collegiate program to Major League Soccer?
AO: “I think UCLA helped me out a lot in terms of preparation to move to the next level, but it’s certainly not easy. In a professional environment you have be consistent in terms of fitness, level of play and speed of play. They’re all just a step up. The veterans have been great in helping me adjust, but the soccer overall is just better in a lot of different ways.” You’re a young player, but the Union are a young team and there are some familiar faces with you in Philadelphia. How has that helped ease your transition?
AO: “It’s great to have guys around who I’ve known on a personal level, and they’re going through the same struggles and successes that I am. I know that if I need someone to talk to those guys are always there, and we can all relate to each other. There are so many young guys here. Especially playing with the national teams and at UCLA with [Brian] Perk and now with Jack [McInerney] it’s always nice to know there is someone right there with you going through the same things.” Have you gotten settled yet?
AO: “No! I still need to find an apartment. I think Danny Mwanga and I are going to live together as we’ve known each other for a little while.” How has the professional environment helped you as a player?
AO: “It’s helped me grow a lot. Even during preseason, just getting into the right soccer mindset day in and day out, not taking a day off, has been challenging in a good way. Rest days have become so important and I have to focus all the time on and off the field, whether it’s taking ice baths or just making sure you’re paying attention when the coaches are talking.” You’re a rookie of course, but everyone on the team really is in their first year of this program. What has the environment been like?
AO: “It’s been really exciting. The fans here are so excited for Philadelphia to have a new team. I don’t think we really know what to expect as an expansion team so it’s great to be part of this first ever group.” Is there a soccer buzz in Philly these days?
AO: “Oh, yes. There are reporters out at our training every day which has been exciting. I think we’re looking forward to a little change of environment this weekend but it will be great to come back and be around our fans as we go on.” Is the team excited to play a meaningful game on Thursday?
AO: “I’m very excited. Just knowing what Seattle has been like in the past, hearing stories from guys who have played there before it’s hard not to be. We hear there is going to be a huge crowd on Thursday and it’s really exciting to know that we can just play and not worry about the off-field stuff anymore. I’ve never played in front of 40,000 people before so I just hope to have that opportunity.” What is the mentality of the team going into the first game?
AO: “We just want to go in and battle. We always want to try to make it tough on them, play with some possession and try to hold onto a shutout. I think that for us, reaching the playoffs is an achievable goal if we play to our expectations. I just want to help the team in any way that I can, contribute consistently.” You are flying from Seattle to Dallas on Friday, what is that turnaround going to be like?
AO: “It’s always great to be able to play for the national team. I love playing for coach [Thomas] Rongen and I’m excited to see all those guys and get to play with them again. We’ll play Mexico so it should be a great rivalry game. I’ve never really played two games like this in a row before so I just want to play as well as I can.” As a professional, what do you bring to the table now when you’re with the U-20s?
AO: “There are some great things that I’ve learned here on the field and some team stuff off the field that I think will help us come together for the Dallas Cup. I think coach Rongen expects me to be a leader this time around, having been a part of qualifying in the last cycle and now that I’m a professional. So, whatever I can do to help bring the younger guys along and let them know what some of my experiences have been like I’m happy to do that.”