A Life-changing Experience
Posted by: Matt Gaschk
Sean Okoli went to Israel with the US U-18 National Team and came back with the most incredible experience of his life.
Sounders FC U-18 forward Sean Okoli had a year to remember in 2010.
In addition to earning a spot with the Sounders FC’s inaugural Academy team, he got extended looks from US Soccer with the U-18 National Team.
However, his greatest reward may have come off the field in December on a trip to Israel with the U-18 National Team.
On the surface, it seemed a fun trip to Okoli when he learned he would have the chance to play against the U-18 teams from France and Germany, along with host Israel, at a winter tournament last month. However, when he got to Israel and got to do some sight-seeing with his teammates, he found that it was an experience he will not soon forget.
He marveled at the Dead Sea, floating effortlessly on the surface of the historically significant body of water.
Easily the most awe-inspiring came when he went to Jerusalem and saw first-hand the final resting place of Jesus Christ (right), as well as the site of his crucifixion (lower right).
For a 17-year-old Federal Way boy who has been raised with a strong religious background, it carried a deeper significance.
“It was a life-changing experience,” he said. “All those stories I’ve heard all my life – I finally got to see it and I was amazed. To be there where everything took place was … it was great.”
When he returned home, it was those stories and pictures that nearly brought his mother to tears.
As impactful as the off-the-field experience was, Okoli was also stricken with the level of play on the field. Playing in matches against France and Germany, he had a chance to measure himself against some of the better European talent in his age group.
“I knew I was going to get to see those guys play and they are going to be the next stars in world soccer. It’s good to see where they are at my age and know what I need to do to keep up with them,” he said.
In a 3-0 loss to France in the opener of the tournament, Okoli came on as a sub in the 62nd minute with the US already trailing 2-0.
He didn’t play in a scoreless draw with Israel, but then started in the finale against Germany. When he left the game in the 54th minute, the score was tied at 0-0, but it finished with a 2-1 loss for the US when Germany outshot the Americans 20-3.
“The team didn’t do as well as we wanted to, but getting the experience of playing France and Germany in a week was unbelievable,” said Okoli, who played in his traditional striker role, but also as a central midfielder and winger in the tournament. “I thought I could have played better, but I did ok. I just need to push to be where the French and Germans are.”
US U-18 head coach Mark Matkovich brought 20 players to Tel Aviv for the winter tournament, including Okoli, the Todd Beamer High School senior.
The games gave Matkovich and US U-20 top dog Thomas Rongen a chance to take extra looks at players they are considering for the 2013 US U-20 cycle. While the results weren’t flashy for the US, the games brought some encouraging perspective for Matkovich and Rongen.
“Obviously our guys aren’t used to playing in those types of games at that level and by the end of the week you see a big improvement. It’s an ongoing process to push these players along and give these guys that experience of playing against those types of players,” Matkovich told USSoccer.com. “For me it was a positive. I think the players got a lot out of it and we’ll push the group along and get them back in and keep looking at different players.”
Next up for the U-18 National team is two camps in Arizona and California before a trip to Portugal in May and Ireland in July for the Milk Cup to conclude the cycle for this group.
At the club level, Okoli tallied seven goals and three assists for the Sounders FC U-18 squad, helping them to an 8-1-4 record. They resume play on January 16.
Sean Okoli and a US U-18 teammate at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. (Photos courtesy Sean Okoli)