Consistency is typically one of the most difficult traits for young players to develop when they make the jump to Major League Soccer. Sean Okoli is learning that in his first season with Sounders FC, but thus far his peaks have put him in among those in contention for playing time, particularly after a two-day binge of offensive explosions in matches against the Charleston Battery and the College of Charleston over the weekend.
The simplest of mental adjustments has quickly converted Okoli from a wide-eyed boy among men to a much more comfortable player with the potential to shake up Seattle’s depth chart.
“I wanted to come into this season with a fresh start in my head. I wanted to work on getting better and do what I used to when I was a kid, just go out and play,” Okoli said.
On Saturday, Okoli was one of two players to come in off the bench in Sounders FC’s 2-1 win over the Battery in the Carolina Challenge Cup. Manning the right wing, Okoli made his presence felt from the moment he subbed on for Marco Pappa in the 72nd minute and in the 85th minute he got to a loose ball off a deflected free kick and fired an ambitious shot just over the crossbar.
Three minutes later, he darted in from the right side and was taken down just inside the box to earn what proved to be the game-winning penalty.
For all of his successes with the ball at his feet in that match, he also showed in an earlier preseason match against the Vancouver Whitecaps FC that he can also be an aerial threat, winning balls again and again out of the air.
He returned to that form a bit against the College of Charleston on Sunday, but ultimately it was his work with the ball at his feet that earned him a goal. Fellow Sounders FC Academy product Aaron Kovar took a feed from Alex Caskey and slid a seeing-eye pass through to Okoli for a shot inside the near post that gave Seattle a 2-0 lead in the 57th minute as Sounders FC’s reserves eventually rolled to a 5-0 victory.
Increasingly, Okoli is looking like a natural fit as an outside midfielder after playing his college career as a striker.
“I think it’s taking him a while getting used to playing wide, but I think he’s grown a little more comfortable with it,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said, noting that Okoli has the pace, nose for goal and crossing ability to give defenses fits from the flanks.
As he grows into that position, he starts to look more and more like the player that ran roughshod of opposing Academy defenses in the first season of the Sounders FC Academy in the 2010-2011 season.
“I really do feel like I’m more myself,” Okoli said. “Before I was thinking about what I should or shouldn’t do. Now I am relaxed and going out and having fun and everything is working out.”
That missing element of consistency hasn’t been an issue on gameday in Okoli’s preseason appearances, but Schmid would like to see more frequency in his top training performances to help the 21-year-old continue his growth as a player.
“He’s starting to make progress and advance himself as a player. I think the main thing is to push hard every day and that consistency is something that he’s starting to catch,” Schmid said. “He’s got to continue to do what he’s doing and work hard every day and if you do that, opportunities open up.”
Sounders FC has two matches remaining in the Carolina Challenge Cup, facing the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday and D.C. United on Saturday. Both matches are slated to kickoff at 2 pm PT with a live stream at SoundersFC.com.