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Okoli shines for Sounders on debut against Sporting KC

The chants of “2-5-3” echoed through CenturyLink Field as Sean Okoli subbed on for Lamar Neagle in the 86th minute of Sounders FC’s season-opening match against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday.

The cheer from the Emerald City Supporters acted as an homage to a Federal Way native and Thomas Jefferson High School product in Neagle and as a welcome to a Todd Beamer High School alum in Okoli, with their home area code acting as a rallying cry.

Okoli, 21, made sure that his time on the field would be as memorable as his entrance, changing the point of attack for Seattle as he was able to create havoc with his speed up the right side and eventually setting up the game-winning goal with a cross that found Clint Dempsey in the box after a redirection at the near post and Chad Barrett finished the rebound.

“When I came in the coaches told me to do the best I can to get in behind the defense and try to make an impact. So I just tried to get the ball at my feet and get a couple of touches in,” Okoli said. “On the counter, Clint found me on the far side, and I just whipped the ball in. It was a mosh-pit in there so it was good to see our guys get on the end of it.”

Okoli was able to cause a particular matchup problem for Kansas City’s left back because of that speed. With Seth Sinovic out with a hip injury, Josh Gardner – who played in the midfield for the Sounders in the USL in 2007 and 2008 – started in his place. Okoli got up the right side in the 88th minute and found Barrett at the top of the box for a shot. Minutes later, Gardner was replaced by Mechack Jerome in stoppage time, but that couldn’t prevent Okoli from continuing to run rampant.

His debut, while limited in minutes, was impactful and a sign of his growth over his first two months as a professional.

“He has been improving all preseason. He’s gotten better each preseason game. He played as a forward at Wake Forest, so he’s learning a little more how to play wide,” said Schmid, noting that Okoli’s youth was never going to hinder his playing time. “You’re not old or young; you’re either a good player or a bad a player.”

One of five players on Seattle’s roster who grew up in the Puget Sound area, Okoli draws on Neagle and DeAndre Yedlin for advice. As the club’s first Homegrown Player signing, Yedlin set the bar high with an All-Star season in 2013, but he also paved the way for other products of the Sounders FC Academy system.

“Watching ‘D’ do his thing last year made me more excited and gave me a lot of confidence to step in and start my career on a good note. It’s nice to see us going out there and doing well,” Okoli said. “Lamar helps me out a lot on the field, so it was nice to make an impact when I came in for him.”

His performance on Saturday was one he won’t soon forget, nor will the 39,240 in attendance at CenturyLink Field. And while there is plenty of local pride on display, the most may have come from Yedlin, who grew up playing with Okoli.

“It was a proud moment, not just for him but for me, too,” Yedlin beamed. “I couldn’t help but smile when he was coming on the field.”