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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Timbers win makes for happy homecoming for Okugo

Former Union player Amobi Okugo, left, defending
Columbus Crew's Justin Meram two weeks ago,
has carved a niche as a valued reserve for the Portland Timbers. (AP)
CHESTER >> The last time Amobi Okugo stepped on the turf at Talen Energy Stadium, both player and arena were in much different situations.

At then PPL Park, Okugo went the full 90 against Sporting Kansas City Oct. 18, 2014, an event that didn’t qualify as news. He was 23, and while the question of his best position on the soccer field remained the subject of debate, he was still a young prospect, one who might soon test the European waters.

Fast forward two and a half years to Saturday night, when Okugo logged the final eight minutes of the Union’s 3-1 loss to the Portland Timbers, and things are much different. Now a veteran in his fourth MLS city, Okugo hasn’t always found the easiest of footing in his post-Union career. But in Portland, he’s established some of the stability that’s been lacking in the intervening years.

Okugo admitted that it’s taken a while – longer than expected, for sure – for his homecoming to materialize. But that individual occurrence is quickly shifted to the team perspective.

“It was a little surreal, but it felt good to get the win,” Okugo said, from the cramped and unfamiliar confines of the visiting locker room. “These points away from home are hard to get. Especially with this group last year, we didn’t get too many points on the road. So to get two wins on the road out of three this early in the season is really big for the group.”

Okugo spent five years in Philly, three as an unquestioned starter, after being picked No. 6 overall in the club’s inaugural SuperDraft. But with his contract due to expire, the Union dealt him to expansion side Orlando City in Dec. 2014, Okugo featuring in new manager Jim Curtin’s plans as neither a defender nor a midfielder.

Okugo lasted 15 games on a lousy Orlando team before being shipped to Sporting Kansas City, where he earned just three games (though a trip to Philadelphia for the 2015 Open Cup final, where the cup-tied Okugo was merely a spectator as his team won on penalty kicks).

After drifting without a club until May of last year and a rumored dalliance with European suitors, he signed with the Timbers and played just four games. This season, though, he’s carved a niche within the squad of the Western Conference leaders. He’s not starting, though he did spell a backline hit by international departures two weeks ago. But he’s played well enough to compete for minutes at the reserve center back and center midfield spot with the likes of Roy Miller and Ben Zemanski. His cameo Saturday came as a midfielder to help ice the game.

The Timbers have as clearly defined roles as any team in MLS, and Okugo seems to fit that scheme.

“I think it’s just a testament to the coaching staff and to the players that we have,” he said. “We know our roles. We know what strengths we bring as players. We’re not trying to do so much, be out of our element. We do what we’re good at, and if you do that more often than not, you’re going to get the wins.”

Okugo reserved some warm feelings for the return to Philadelphia, exchanging hugs and handshakes with members of the Union and the team’s training staff before the game. But the 26-year-old is more concerned with the present than the past.

“Here, to be able to get minutes, to see some fans that became family and see some fans see my name when I was warming up, it felt good,” he said. “But it feels good to get the win.”

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April 11, 2017 at 3:00 PM 

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