Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Let’s be honest: the eight games leading up to Sunday night’s 3–1 win over Houston kind of sucked. Even the most optimistic among us, myself included, were having a tough time finding our rose-colored, half-full glasses (yes, it’s a mixed metaphor, get over it).
We want the team to win, and when it doesn’t, it can be hard to see the bright spots, assuming there are any bright spots to see.
And there haven’t been many.
Lucky for us, Sunday afternoon provided a glimpse of what the Union can do when the team plays at its best. We finally got a little bit of fresh air. We got a win, and 3 goals! All in the same game! Apparently, we are even still in the playoff chase, although the realist in me knows it’s only a quirk of mathematics.
While posting a Player of the Week in this stretch of dull draws and excruciating losses has seemed silly, after Sunday we suddenly had several candidates to choose from: Freddy Adu, fresh off weeks of frustrating, often anonymous play scored two goals, one of them really quite good, and requiring serious skill. With Gabriel Farfan injured, Sheanon Williams moved to the left side, and put in a sterling effort. Raymon Gaddis came in on the right and continued to prove he’s one of the best rookies in MLS this year, and is perhaps the best right back without a starting job in the whole league. The entire team, really, played well. And yet, one win doesn’t erase weeks of struggle, especially when there were two Union games this week, and the other was a loss. So, in truth, there’s only one player who deserves the honor, and his name is Amobi Okugo.
Okugo, with his calm yet incisive passing, intelligent tackling, and sensible positioning, is the only player who can claim to have come through the Union’s recent slump with any consistent credit (with the possible exception of his captain and defensive partner, Carlos Valdés). Nearly every game, he’s been the Union’s best player. And let’s consider, for a moment, that Okugo is playing out of position. A midfielder by trade, he hasn’t sniffed the middle of the park for months. Instead, he’s undergone on-the-job training as a center back.
Center backs, like goalkeepers, tend to get better with age. It’s a position that relies as much on nous and intelligence, on knowledge of the game, as it does on athleticism and speed. Okugo is 21 years old, callow youth by center back standards. Yet Okugo hasn’t simply done okay, he’s been excellent. So excellent, in fact, that at a time when it seems clear to most observers that his presence in midfield would be a huge upgrade over Michael Lahoud or Gabriel Gomez, and when there is a ready-made replacement in Bakary Soumaré waiting in the wings, John Hackworth hasn’t even thought about moving him out of the back line. He’s been so excellent, one has to wonder if he’s becoming a center back for life.
On Sunday, amongst a much-improved Union team, his contributions still stood out. There he was, saving Zac MacMath’s bacon, calmly chesting down a ball chipped over the stranded keeper and destined for goal, then telling Zac to pick the damn thing up. And there he was late on, high up the pitch, taking a bouncing ball out of the air and whistling it toward goal, where Josué Martinez was able to poke it home.
This award could just as easily be called Player of the Last Eight Weeks, and I won’t be surprised if Amobi Okugo continues to put in Player-of-the-Week-caliber performances the rest of the way. Hopefully, he’ll have a little more competition, but one thing is for sure: he sets an example the Union would do well to follow.