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Season review: Amobi Okugo’s exit interview

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: When we planned our season review series, we had planned for someone to have a chat with Amobi Okugo. Then we learned he was being traded. After PSP’s Eli Pearlman-Storch scooped the soccer world in reporting the deal, it was obvious that he had to be the guy interviewing him. Over the last few years, Eli has gotten to know plenty of Philadelphia Union players as PSP’s most regular game day writer, but if there’s any one of them that he has clearly become good friends with (full disclosure), it’s Amobi Okugo. All other things aside, it was obvious that Eli had to be the guy to sit down and have a good chat with Okugo before the Union original moves down to Orlando. Here is that conversation. –Dan Walsh

Philly Soccer Page: First thing’s first. Can you go back and walk me through any attempts the Union made to sign you since you arrived in Philadelphia?

Amobi Okugo: After the season [in 2012], when Coach Hack initially took over, he presented me with a chance to re-sign to a new contract, but at the time I didn’t think that was smart or right, because the contract that I was on, the security, the number of years that were left was fine.

Then this season came about, and Philly never really talked to me until the last two months of the season and it was always trying to gauge what I was going to do. But at that time, at the end of the season, with everything that was going on with us, I just wanted to focus on Open Cup and trying to get to the playoffs.

Then at the end of the season, Philly presented the bona fide offer and in my eyes, the bona fide offer is just to keep your rights and make sure you can’t go anywhere else. It’s not really “We want you here, we want you to stay, we want you to play at so-and-so position, with so-and-so guys and move this team forward, over the hump.” It’s more like, “We’re offering you this bona fide offer and go from there.”

PSP: In your eyes, how did the contract negotiations play out, with the bona fide offer and your decision to leave Philadelphia?

AO: I think both parties kind of knew what was going to happen. I feel that Philly didn’t really make enough of a commitment to try and sway my decision. Whatever decision that was going to be. A lot of reports said that I had my mind set on Europe and that’s true, but there were other possibilities that I considered. Everything I feel like I do is always calculated, always well thought out and I don’t think Philly did enough to try and sway my decision.

PSP: Now that you have made the decision to stay in MLS with Orlando rather than try your luck in Europe, and where do you think that puts you at this point in your career?

AO: Orlando reached out to the Union and my agent back in August. My agent told me that if I were to stay in MLS, [Orlando] was going to be an option and he wanted to gauge my interest and the proposal. The pitch that Orlando gave was a good one, but I wanted to wait until the end of the season to decompress, to meet with my agent, meet with my family, my dad and see what was best. At the end of the day, Orlando was the best option for me to take that next step as a player. I feel like I’m at the age where I’m not considered young anymore, so I need to take that next step and be able to make an impact every game.

PSP: You had options in Europe though, so can you explain the thought process behind the decision to stay in MLS?

AO: At the end of the season, everyone knew that I was going to be a free agent, which was attractive to a lot of European teams. I was fortunate to have a good amount of European options, whether it was in Germany, in the first and second divisions, France, a team in Denmark, a team in Switzerland, Russia. But my dad always tells me, “You have to strike when the iron is hot,” and for me, the iron was lukewarm. I feel like a good player, with a lot of games under his belt, can go over to Europe, but when I go to Europe, I want to make an immediate impact. I felt that the situations that were presented to me, it wasn’t going to be like that.

So looking back at Orlando, with the pitch they made, everything was going the way that they said and I think it was the best decision at this time. I have a feeling that it’s gonna work out. My mom always says that Amobi actually means, “God will lead you” and every decision that has been made so far in my career has turned out to be a good one, so I think it’s gonna work out.

PSP: From what you’ve heard from Coach Heath and the coaching staff, what are you expecting out of Orlando? 

AO: Coach Adrian Heath, he’s a great coach. You ask 10 different guys about Coach Heath, and you’re going to get ten positive answers. He’s a great coach and a hard coach, which I like. I like guys that are hard on me. The pitch Orlando made, being able to play with Kaka, being able to play in a team that already has an identity, that already has a style of play that suites their system, their city and their organization. It was really attractive to me and I feel like, for me to be in the situation that they described, it’s going to be good.

Coach Heath, the GM, the rest of the coaching staff said that they feel like I haven’t been utilized in my best positions and that, if I came to Orlando, that’s going to change. They said, “If you do well, if you work hard like you have been with Philly, then you’re going to have a chance to do what you’ve set out to do.”

PSP: Not only is Pedro Ribeiro joining you in Florida, but also Danny Mwanga. Were you surprised by that selection and what are you looking forward to when you meet up again?

AO: I was in Orlando doing some promo stuff and during the Expansion Draft, we had the live feed for Orlando and so we were going through the picks and they said that with the No. 8 pick, we picked Danny Mwanga and I just said, “Oh my gosh, let me text this dude.” It was good.

We always talked about it from when we were first roommates, what our careers were going to be like. Unfortunately for Danny, it took a little turn, but for us to be reunited in a good situation, it’s going to be great. Danny has a lot of critics right now, but if you ask anyone who has played with him, he’s probably one of the most talented players they’ve ever played with, and now it’s all about proving that on the field. It’s gonna be fun to be reunited because we have a lot of goals that we still haven’t accomplished, myself and Danny, that we used to talk about, and for us to be working together again is going to be fun.

PSP: Now that you’ve spent a little time down in Orlando, what have you seen that leads you to believe they can come into the league on the front foot?

AO: Being an expansion side, Orlando has exceeded all expectations, and I think that is a testament to their model. Their model is “Defy expectations.” Fortunately for them, they’ve been a USL side before so they kind of got a warmup.

They’ve already got a state of the art training facility. They provide breakfast and lunch before and after practice, which is essential for a professional athlete to be able to eat right before a workout, or immediately after to get the right nutrients in your body. They’ve just made everything easy for me so far, whether is was helping me find a place, helping me find a school to continue my education that is a very big part of what I want. They’re just doing things the right way, so far. I think the staff, the organization starting with the coaches, the administrators — they’re really working hard to cater to the players needs.

PSP: How does that compare to what you experienced in Philadelphia, specifically with respect to how the Union practiced and trained?

AO: Philly took a little while. Orlando had the ability to be a USL side before they got into MLS. In Philly, it was straight MLS, so with the training facility, it wasn’t until this year that we got the training fields. But we always made a good effort of dealing with what we had and I actually think that helped us on the field, always dealing with adversity, dealing with what we had. We had to practice at a park, we practiced at the stadium, we practiced at the youth fields.

I think that once Coach Hack was head coach, I think he slowly started to change the culture with providing us with food after practices, for example. We changed our whole turf room into a gym — that’s a credit to Kevin Miller, as well, who did a lot to help turn that around, to help cater to the players. Kevin Miller and the rest of the physical staff, they don’t get enough credit.

Philly’s not as fortunate as other teams like Seattle or LA to have a world renowned training facility, but the efforts that they made, if you look back on the seasons, we never really had too many injuries. Now that they have the training fields, the next step is a training facility; the next step is a weight room, a certified weight-room, not a makeshift one, and then they’ll go from there. All those little things help tremendously. If you ask any player around the league, they’ll say training facility, locker room, gym, ice baths, hot baths, massage –all that stuff helps tremendously. You see the teams in the league that are doing well, you go to their facilities and you see how they’re doing it. LA, Seattle, Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, Red Bulls. They’re doing it the right way.

PSP: It sounds like you were three years in and many of those training elements still had not been implemented. When did the Union’s nutrition program, for example, actually start?

AO: Under Coach Peter we had it like once a week, but that was just through our sponsorship or up in the club suites where we get food. Kevin Miller was always very dedicated to helping us and he even brought in [recovery] shakes from home.

And then Coach Hack, he came in and from the first day, he always made sure he talked to BC [Brian Carroll] and a couple of the older guys and asked, “What is it going to take to change the culture, change the dynamic of the Union?” And some of the guys addressed it and Coach Hack did a lot of things to help change that around, from food after practice, slowly but surely, it was three times a week to every day after practice we would get food and it makes a big difference to the players in Philly. If you could ask guys the difference from the first year to now, myself, Sheanon [Williams], Seba [Sebastien Le Toux], they will tell you the same thing.

PSP: One thing the Union is known for around MLS, for better or worse, is the fact that they have had three coaches in five years. How do you feel those changes affected your development as a player and your ongoing opinion of the franchise?

AO: First and foremost, I’m grateful for all three coaches, from Coach Jim, to Coach Hack, to even Coach Peter.

Coach Peter drafted me with the No. 6 pick. He showed a lot of faith to move things around and pick me at the number six position. He taught me a lot, although he didn’t play me as much as I would have liked. He still taught me a great deal about how to be a pro, how to go about my business, how to keep fighting, keep working whether you’re playing or not.

Coach Hack, who I had a prior relationship with during the residency program, is probably one of the most influential coaches for me. Just from bringing me to residency and trusting me to play a new position when he took over. As an interim coach, you have a lot of pressure to try and turn things around, and for him to play me at center back from the get go was rewarding for me and it meant a lot.

Coach Jim, he helped turn things around during an unfortunate start. He played me back at center mid. Good things kept coming when he played me there. He’s always talking and he’s a good motivator to me personally. I remember last year, before every game, he would say, “This is your year. Best 11. This is your year. Be best eleven.” And I would always say, “ You’re going to jinx me. You’re going to jinx me. Don’t say that.” And this year he just talked about making an impact in the game, whether it was center mid or center back. So I’m grateful for every coach, but three coaches in five years is tough to deal with. But that’s the nature of the business, and I think I went about it the right way.

PSP: When you say “Best 11,” was that in MLS or being in the starting lineup every week?

AO: Best 11 in MLS. Coach Jim started out as an academy coach and when I first started playing center back, I knew he played center back. He was always giving me little tips like, “Keep finding those little entry passes that you do, you’re doing great.” And then when he came on as an assistant coach, he was always saying, “I think you can turn a lot of heads playing center back,”so before the games he was always saying, “Best 11, you’ve got it this year.” And I would always find some way to knock on wood so it wouldn’t jinx me, so he was a good motivator for me.

PSP: What is it like to be such close friends with a guy like Maurice Edu, who is a direct competitor for playing time at your shared position?

AO: I feel like, Mo and I, this season our relationship grew. We didn’t really know each other before, but from the first day he came in, we just clicked. I consider him a good friend, for not only the competitive spirit that we both display on the field, but off the field, a lot of life lessons, a lot of advice about the nature of the business within MLS, within Europe, and with the national team. He taught me a lot of things, so I’m forever grateful for the friendship that we have. On the field, there’s always a secret competition. We both play the same position, so we always knew that we had to compete and I think that pushed us both to play at a higher level. But from an on the field standpoint, I know he came in as a DP and whenever you have a DP, you always have to cater to a DP’s needs.

But, we’re both teammates, we’re both for the team first and foremost, so whatever helps the team, whatever coach feels like, we were going to do that. In my time in Philly, I’ve competed with all my friends, whether it was from the first year with [Eduardo] Coudet, [Stefani] Miglioranzi, Andrew Jacobson. To Brian Carroll when he came in, to Michael Farfan, Keon [Daniel], Jeff Parke, Baky [Soumare]. Baky, as well, I feel like it was the same situation with Baky where I was competing with him. Unfortunately, with his injuries, I was stuck at center back, but you’re competing with all your teammates. This year, I was competing with Ethan White, who is also a dear friend of mine, so that’s just the nature of the business. That’s the mindset of the team and it’s actually good for the team to create those little competitions and I feel like we all went about it the right way.

PSP: As I understand it, Mo was involved in you getting to wear the captain’s arm band for the first time. Can you explain?

AO: That just speaks on the relationship that Mo and I have. Our first game, we tied Portland. We came out of the gates fairly well. And then our second game, BC came down with an injury, the day of I think, and Coach Hack talked to me, talked to Mo, and he asked who should be captain. And then Mo told coach that he thought it should be me — with my experience with the team and the way the guys respect me, he thought that it would be good for me, help me take more of a leadership role, and it would help me get attention across the league. That’s just one of the little things Mo has done for me in my career and that speaks on our relationship.

PSP: As you pack up and prepare to move out of town, tell me about some of your most memorable experiences both on the field and with Union fans.

AO: Philly fans. I can’t speak enough about how grateful I am for meeting all of you guys. From Bill Gusler sending me the skate deck and countless scarves and pictures, to Carlos sending me framed jerseys of Chelsea and pictures of Real Madrid. To Earl and the “Table of Awesome” at Team Dinner at Fogo [de Chao]. Just different fans always helping out and reaching out when I have a question on Twitter or a question about something in the city.

Some of the games that I’ll remember most have to be, No. 1, when we played New York and Roger Torres scored the game winner. That was probably the loudest PPL has ever been. Opening game versus Seattle at PPL Park when my boy, Danny, scored the game winner. Opening playoff game against Houston, that was a good one even though we didn’t play our best. It was a short run in the playoffs, but to be able to get to the playoffs in our second year as an expansion side, not many teams do that. 2012 semifinal Open Cup versus Kansas City. I mean, we lost but we showed that we’re a team that can compete with everything that went on for us that season. That was good for us to get to the semifinals of that tournament and I feel like we could have done more and unfortunately Kansas City gave us a lesson that game. This year’s Open Cup final and the way the city embraced us during that week in the run up. That whole Open Cup run, to be honest, was memorable from the first game where we barely beat Harrisburg to the Cosmos game. And the Cosmos really wanted to win that tournament, to cause controversy, but we beat them. To beating New England, then Dallas when they were on their 11 game unbeaten streak, to having the final against Seattle with all the story lines, like our first ever game against Seattle and our first opening game at PPL against Seattle. Two expansion sides, I think that meant a lot to the fans. Unfortunately, we didn’t win. I could be here all day talking about some of the memories. The game against Toronto when Kleberson scored. Oh my gosh, that was a game to remember. Even though we didn’t make the playoffs that year, for him to score that game-winner and give us hope and another day to try and make the playoffs.

PSP: You mentioned the Open Cup final. A lot of people have speculated that that moment was a turning point and a decisive moment for you. Was that game something of a final straw and what was it like to be left out of that game?

AO: When your name’s not called, first and foremost as a competitor, you’re angry, you’re mad, you have a lot of thoughts in your head. But then you have to decompress, you have to think about the team. And at that moment I was there for the team, because if we all win the trophy, I get my piece — coach makes the decision and hopefully the team he puts on the field is in the best position to win. Unfortunately, we didn’t win.

Yeah, it still stings that I wasn’t able to be a part of that game. I felt like the games leading up to the Open Cup final, we were at our best. From the Dallas game in the Open Cup semis to two Toronto games, I feel like everyone was talking about us in the league. We were at a point where if anyone came to us, we were going to beat them with the lineup that we had, with the formation and the identity we were playing with. With that confidence, I didn’t think anyone was going to beat us at that particular time. Unfortunately, coach went with his gut, and we didn’t win.

In terms of it being a final straw, I wouldn’t say that. It stung a little bit, but people know me. I’m always calculated in everything I do, and it could have played a role, but it didn’t really. I know that Coach Jim had to make his decision and he made it and at this point it’s water under the bridge.

PSP: As we wrap up, I wanted to ask if you have thought about what it’s going to be like to play at PPL Park against the Union? What type of reception are you expecting?

AO: I haven’t thought about it yet, but now that you bring it up, I think it’s going to be interesting. I’m so used to walking out of the PPL tunnel, looking at the fans and doing the little clap-around. I feel like that’s not going to happen this year cause I’ll be with another team, but that’s just the nature of the business. I know there’s a lot of fans I’ll still keep in contact with and it will all be good fun. But once the game starts, I know they’re going to be booing.

42 Comments

  1. Eli…Amobi – you know this is beyond heartbreaking.

  2. Classy. Best of luck to Amobi (just not when he plays the U).

  3. Yup… depressing

  4. Show me the Money!?!!!?!
    .
    No?! OK…bye.

  5. Philadelphia Union: Making bad decisions since 2010.

    Unbelievably stupid for them to not resign him.

  6. All class and quality from this guy. Wish nothing but success for him in Orlando. Can’t wait to see him in the USMNT – I’ll definitely be buying that jersey!

    • Spugger — I, like so many..have followed your great comments for years…and this one speaks so true – Union’s loss and Amobi’s gain.

  7. I’ve tried to stay objective about him leaving, but now I just can’t. Really wish he was still here, and that our organization was run better.

  8. Very upsetting as a Union fan. As a fan of Amobi, I only hope this leads to the national team where he belongs.

  9. I’m trying to wait to see how this all plays out and what team we have going into 2015. Eli thanks for the interview. I hope sometime soon you give us your take on the entire Okugo situation. I still don’t like how this played out and I don’t think losing Okugo was even necessary. To me this entire thing speaks to the 5 years of utter BS from this organization. Perhaps it shows how hard it is to build and MLS organization from scratch and the growing pains that it goes through. I often wonder if there where any other options beside Sakeiwicz and Sugarman interested in bringing an MLS franchise to the Philadelphia Market and if another option would have been better.

  10. Not only is Amobi a very good player, he’s a high character guy who should have been the face of this organization for years to come. Throughout his time here and during this chat with Eli, he always handles himself with class.

    I’ll always remember a game during his rookie year where he started vs Toronto at PPL. It was brutally hot and he didn’t put a foot wrong the whole match. Very impressive performance for a rookie.

    It was a huge mistake to sell him to another MLS team and I will give him a standing O when he walks onto the pitch at PPL for the first time as a visitor. He deserves it.

    Great interview, Eli.

  11. I can’t blame the guy for not wanting to be here. He’s been through a lot of nonsense with this organization. The lack of facilities (gym, rehab, and practice) furthers adds to the idea that ownership wasn’t ready to compete from day one.

    Union have lacked the infrastructure to produce a quality team and product, whether it be practice fields or competent scouting/technical staff. They’re in the process of playing catch up, but even now their efforts seem weak and half-assed relative to other clubs.

    It kills me that FO talks about building through youth rather than big name DPs, but then lets two young guys walk to another team (in the conference to boot). I guess I should be thankful they got that sweet allocation money and Fabinho.

  12. It bums me out that because of moves like this, and a relatively high roster turnover rate, I’ve come to hold the team at arm’s length anymore. I’ve become numb to the Union … I can’t, nay won’t, get upset when a player leaves, nor can I, will I get overly excited when a high(er) caliber player is signed.
    .
    It’s not worth it.

  13. OneManWolfpack says:

    My thoughts on the whole Okugo thing – “Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive Expletive”

    – Me

  14. Thanks for this article and interview. Gives me insight into how horrible my investment into this team since ZOLO season has been squandered by an inept ownership group and front office staff. Nothing new though it seems to be a Philly curse . I wish Amobi well in his career and hope to welcome him back to PPL when he wears the Red White and Blue of The USMNT .

  15. Great interview. Thanks to Amobi for five years. I wish him nothing but the best.

  16. The Union will absolutely regret not signing this future-USMNT champion. I hope he comes back in 2015 and scores a game-winner for Orlando.

  17. I read Amobi’s answer to the first question and couldn’t keep
    reading. I cannot respond anymore nor have anything constructive to say. This is a mistake the Union will lament- like Chris Carter, Reggie White et al. Truly truly a disappointment for me as a futbol aficionado looking for signs of a growing sophistication on the field and in HQ.

  18. Did you ever really think Amobi was going to stay in Philly? This interview makes it sound like he would have happily stayed if only the Union had made him feel loved. From early on I thought this California native couldn’t wait to move to a warmer climate. I don’t fully buy his version.

    • Under what auspices do you or have you ever found him to be untrustworthy.

      • I don’t have any factual courtroom-worthy evidence of untrustworthy-ness, but the 3 things I see are: (a) Contract negotiations are a 2 way street. Amobi could just as easily have reached out to the Union to say, “I’d really like to stay. Let’s figure this out.” Didn’t happen. (b) Despite his professionalism, his complaining on the way out the door is kind of unprofessional, and (c) I guess I always felt like he was just biding his time until he could get out of here.

    • Can you name two good reasons for Amobi to stay in Philly?

    • He passed on Hackworth’s offer to re-sign a new contract. Kinda tells me that Amobi wasn’t too keen to be here back then. Not that he wanted out per se, but that he didn’t want to be locked in for longer than his 5-year contract.

  19. Is it heresy to jump ship?

  20. Steve OMalley says:

    He definitely had no options in Europe if he stayed in MLS he isnt that good but he is young so dont freak out about him leaving he can succeed their because they have Kaka and possibly Ashley Cole and a lot of $$

  21. and still Darryl Hall echoing in the head, ‘everybody’s high on consolation….’

  22. ‘I’d pay the devil to replace…..’

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