Bakary Soumare was the Union’s big signing of the transfer window. The Malian promises to bring size and skill to an already strong back line.
But while Soumare was recovering from a knee injury, Amobi Okugo (or the guy Peter Nowak may or may not call, “That fella I ignored when I got bored of ignoring Jack McInerney”) decided he would try his hand at this central defense thing. And he has been very, very good.
Okugo’s future lies in the midfield. And he has taken the skillset that makes him a talented midfielder and used it to become a dynamic defender. Moving to the back line involves losing some of the freedom enjoyed as a middie. If a midfielder misses a tackle, he gets up and recovers; if a defender does the same, he probably wants to avoid meeting his goalie’s eyes for a few minutes.
As a result, midfielders who drop to the back line may begin to play a more cautious game. Simple passes, positional defense, when-in-doubt-kick-it-out.
Instead, Okugo has traded his nine iron for a driver and simply added more length to an already ambitious passing arsenal.
Our first example comes from the 56th minute of last weekend’s match against Montreal. In what has become all-too-typical fashion, the Union slowly moved the ball around the back. While this sounds like a good thing, a quick look at the Impact defense tells you that the ball movement was too slow to create gaps in the front six.
By the time Okugo received the ball he is about to pass, Andrew Wenger had cut off the passing angle to Brian Carroll and Justin Mapp had stepped up to make anything to Sheanon Williams a trap. On the one hand, this situation highlights how the Union get themselves in trouble. Sheanon Williams has clearly expected this play to develop quicker and has positioned himself upfield only to see Mapp have plenty of time to cover. Brian Carroll does not want the ball in a space that will see him closed down with no options. So it’s left to Okugo to create or restart.
The chosen pass should be thrilling to Union fans, because it is one that few center backs in MLS can play: A lengthy daisycutter to Jack McInerney who is about to check into the space Freddy Adu is ignoring.
We are here to talk about positives, so we will ignore the acres of unoccupied space on the near side.
In order to get through the Montreal midfield, the Union needed what amounts to a Tom Brady pass through dime coverage. And we are talking video game Tom Brady, the one who never misses even when you hold the button too long.
Okugo is capable of making this pass. He has made it and others like it regularly. And it’s really, really hard. It’s certainly not the team’s first, second, or third choice when looking to move through the middle, but when everything else is ineffective it’s quite the trump card. This is what the team has to consider before moving Okugo out of the back line, where he has time to pick out passes like this one.
An even clearer example of what Okugo has offered going forward comes from the 75-76th minutes of the same match.
Here, Brian Carroll receives the ball and turns to find space in front of him. Though the only players open appear to be dynamic midfielder Invisible Jones and winger Ghost McNobody, Carroll should have the time to find a checking player. After all, once the ball gets out of the back, with the outside backs clearly moved upfield, the Union should be able to move forward, even if only at a snail’s pace.
Wrong. Carroll, finding nothing quickly and (rightly) unwilling to try anything brash, plays the ball back to Okugo.
Okugo, with a midfielder’s instincts, takes the space granted by Montreal. As the Impact collapse the zone, Okugo finds Hoppenot over the top with a left-footed aerial pass. This is not rocket science. Other center backs can play that ball. They just won’t play it to feet. Or consistently. Or with confidence.
Clearly, Okugo’s game has flaws. He’s prone to the unadvisable slide tackle that raises eyebrows, he can get turned by big strikers, and he is loose with coverage when backing into the box when a cross is expected. These are also aspects of the midfielder’s game that he has brought with him to a new position.
But the ability to get the Union attack started from deep positions has painted over myriad flaws in the team’s build up play. And while Bakary Soumare might address height issues, the team will have to work even harder to move the ball out of the defense without Amobi Okugo’s passing range back there bailing them out.