Aaron Kovar and Sean Okoli looking to exceed goals set for them in rookie year.
At this time last year, Sounders FC was eager to see how newly signed right back DeAndre Yedlin might be able to adapt to the professional game. Seattle’s first-ever Homegrown Player signing, Yedlin was coming off of two successful seasons at Akron and was lined up to learn his position behind Swedish international Adam Johansson.
Instead, he clung to the starting role and was a breakout success in his rookie season in MLS, earning an All-Star nod and was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year while leading the club in appearances. Internationally, he earned a spot with the U.S. squad in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey and, by year’s end, was named to the U.S. National Team’s January camp in California and Brazil as Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann readies for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in June.
All of these accolades and accomplishments could have set up unrealistic expectations for future Homegrown signings for Sounders FC, but when the club inked Aaron Kovar and Sean Okoli this month, Seattle Head Coach Sigi Schmid said that Yedlin’s success doesn’t put any extra pressure or expectations on other Seattle Homegrown players.
“DeAndre’s story last year was a dream story. With the injuries that we had in the preseason, he was able to step out and play in preseason games. He played well and we decided to make a change, but our expectation wasn’t that he was going to be able to start every game. He just went out there and started every game,” Schmid said. “That’s the dream scenario, but the dream doesn’t always happen. I think the expectation is that they get opportunities to play and get into the first team, but it’s more development that takes place with Reserve League games or we might loan them out to a lower division team. We want them to continue to get games and continue to develop.”
Like Yedlin at Akron, Kovar played just two college seasons at Stanford before signing professionally while Okoli played three seasons with Wake Forest.
He was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2012 and had another standout season in 2013 with two goals and six assists. A former Gatorade Washington State Player of the Year from Garfield High School in Seattle, Kovar thinks there is actually less pressure on him because of Yedlin’s success.
“I think it takes pressure off. I think what he did really helped us get signed this year – to see that we can play at a high level,” Kovar said. “I want to try to emulate a lot of what he did this year and get on the field as much as I can and really make an impact.”
Okoli, who was a first-time All-ACC selection in 2013 after posting nine goals in his junior season, agreed with his former Sounders FC Academy teammate.
“I’m happy for DeAndre for his success, but it doesn’t put any pressure on me,” said Okoli, a product of Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way. “I’m just going to go out and do the best I can every day and see what happens.”
One thing that will likely help Kovar and Okoli adapt to the professional level is the time they have spent around the Sounders FC organization through the years. Although he played just one season in the Sounders FC Academy, Okoli played two more seasons with the Sounders FC U-23s and regularly trained with Seattle’s first team when he was home on school vacations. Kovar played two seasons with the Sounders FC U-18s and one with the U-23s and also found himself in the mix for some guest appearances in training sessions with the first team.
“One of the things that we try to do with our Homegrowns as they move on and go into college is when they come back during the summer, besides playing with the U-23s they come in and train with us as well,” Schmid said. “Those are good things for them because they know what the culture is about, what the team is about and what I’m about. I think that’s a huge help.”
That development now continues with the first team, as Seattle prepares to start training camp on Saturday.