Throughout his soccer career, Sean Okoli has been a focal point on every team he has played for. At Wake Forest, he scored 24 goals in three seasons to earn All-ACC honors each year. Before that, he was a standout with Todd Beamer High School and scored 13 goals in 22 matches with the Sounders FC U-18s.
So playing just 18 minutes in two substitute appearances for Sounders FC this season has been an adjustment.
“I’m not used to it, that’s for sure. But it’s a good team. I just have to keep my head down and keep working and I know eventually my time will come and I know I’ll take my opportunity then,” said the 21-year-old forward. “You’ve got to be able to push yourself, especially when you’re not getting game time. You have to keep your work rate high, make sure you put it all out on the field and when your opportunity comes, just seize it.”
Because minutes have been scarce as Okoli plays behind a veteran group that includes Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Kenny Cooper, Chad Barrett, Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa, he is even more excited for the Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game on Monday at Providence Park in Portland.
Some of the top Homegrown players in MLS will come together for a free-to-the-public exhibition match designed to get them an extra game during the season and showcase the developmental progress of young professional players through the league’s Academy systems.
“I’m excited to get out there and I’m happy to represent the Sounders in the event,” said Okoli, who scored in his only U.S. Open Cup appearance, putting an exclamation point on a 5-0 win over PSA Elite. “It’s going to be fun. I’m going to be glad to just go out there and play, show people what I can do.”
While Head Coach Sigi Schmid has seen improvements in Okoli through his time with Sounders FC, he also notes a lack of consistency—common among young players—as an area to improve upon.
“With every young player, it’s just consistency. A lot of young players, sometimes are inconsistent. With Sean, you see those sparks and you see those levels of performance that tell you why he’s here. But there are days when he’s not quite at that level,” Schmid said. “That’s something that he improves upon each day and he works on each day. My job as a coach is to put him on the field when he can be successful. If I put him on the field too early and he’s not going to be successful, that’s not going to help him. Or me.”
In the meantime, Okoli continues to learn from the likes of Dempsey, Martins, Neagle and Cooper, each with different lessons to offer because of their unique playing styles.
It’s a practice in urgent patience for Okoli, as he presses each for information and helpful tips while also competing with them for playing time.
“I think I can pick up different things from each one of them. I’m enjoying the fact that I get to learn from them, but I’m also competing against them,” Okoli said. “How fast they think on and off the ball is crazy. Their thought process is great and that’s what you need to play at the highest level. Obviously, finishing, passing, touches … those are all the things I can work on and then the speed of thought will get there. I just have to be patient.”
Many of Okoli’s teammates in the first Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game will have the same approach, as they all seek to put on display the things they have learned in their early professional careers. It’s just the type of showcase that can help players build confidence heading into the final months of the regular season.
The match will kick off at 7 pm PT and will be streamed live on WatchESPN and MLSsoccer.com. The MLS Homegrown players will face the Portland Timbers U-23s and fans can secure free tickets by visiting www.chipotlehomegrown.com.
In addition to Okoli’s appearance in the Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game, Sounders FC will also have five players from the Academy system playing in three matches in the Generation adidas ESP Showcase. John Dale, Kees Westra, Davis Behnke, Oscar Zepeda and John Reynolds will all represent Sounders FC on the All-Star Youth West team in matches against two other regional All-Star teams, as well as the FC Bayern U-16s.