2016 USL MVP Sean “Ugo” Okoli talks about his return to the league, his circle of friends, and his pride in his Nigerian roots.
One of the most dangerous USL Championship strikers in the last five years is back for the 2020 season. 2016 MVP Sean “Ugo” Okoli returns to the league as a motivated member of Orange County SC.
This actually won’t be the first time that Okoli is wearing an Orange County kit. Back in the early years of his professional career, he played briefly on loan with the club then known as Orange County Blues. “I think the changes have been drastic since the last time I’ve been here,” Okoli told BGN. “It sounds like we have a completely new ownership team. I see a lot of growth and positive moves since then and I’m happy to be here.”
Before and after that loan, Ugo could never fully break into the first team with Seattle Sounders FC, where he signed after playing in their youth system. Following a trade from Seattle to New England Revolution, Ugo ended up in the Queen City with expansion side FC Cincinnati. In 2016, Okoli was the star during Cincy’s inaugural season. He won the USL MVP and Golden Boot, finishing with 16 goals and three assists in 29 matches. He explained, “First things first, when I was in Cincinnati, that was the first time that I was playing regularly, more than one or two starts at a time, playing consistently. I think I was able to show everybody what I was capable of. But, it was always about improving and I’m an ambitious person.” That mindset led him to return to Major League Soccer following that breakout season as he signed with New York City Football Club.
Unfortunately with less consistent minutes, he could not keep his momentum from the previous campaign with FCC. Playing in 16 matches, only three starts, he registered one goal on 13 shots for NYCFC. “Getting that opportunity to play for Patrick Vieira and New York City Football Club, it was a great experience. Very professional, top to bottom, at that club and the training sessions were good and the games were obviously at a high level, playing with some great players like Andrea Pirlo and David Villa,” Ugo reflected. “You really do learn and have to force yourself to grow and raise your standards every single day. I thought I grew a lot while I was there, but I probably didn’t show as much as I wanted to at the time. But, I felt like it was always a step I needed to take to continue improving.”
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Ugo departed NYCFC and played overseas for the last couple of seasons before deciding to return to the United States with Orange County SC. “Coming to this decision to be out here with OC, there were a lot of moving pieces at the time, but I really liked the conversation we had, between me and the coach (Braeden Cloutier),” he said. “I know some of the guys here, including my good, good friend Darwin Jones and he had good things to say, so I just had a good feeling. I think that’s real important for myself in my career right now.”
Darwin Jones is a key figure in Ugo’s circle, which includes another Washington native that knows a thing or two about soccer: Newcastle United and USMNT defender DeAndre Yedlin. “Yeah, DeAndre, I grew up with him and Darwin since we were 13,14, or 15 years old, maybe even younger. It’s important for everyone to have a good circle around them,” Ugo explained. “Guys who are positive and all have the same ambitions in ways. I think I have a pretty good circle with my good friends from home in Seattle, Darwin and DeAndre are obviously in that.”
“We don’t talk too much about football. It’s really just about life and everything like that. I don’t want to get too into detail with it, but it’s obviously important to have a good circle around you.”
His family is a big part of his life and soccer career as well. Sean said, “My dad and my family is a huge part of it. Whenever the good times and bad times came around, they were always there for me and always supported me, so I am forever grateful to them.” It was his dad, a former striker for Nigeria, that got him into soccer. “My dad was a pretty good striker himself back in the day and I’m pretty sure if you asked him, he would he’s still better,” Ugo said. How important to him are his Nigerian roots? He answered, “Growing up in a Nigerian household, you definitely take pride in being Nigerian and those roots. But, I think I’m cultured in the American side of things, too, being born and raised here. I am close with my Nigerian side.”
Ugo will look to continue to make his family and friends proud as the 2020 USL Championship season kicks off tomorrow. Orange County SC will host El Paso Locomotive FC on opening night. While he prefers to keep his personal goals private, Okoli talked about the club’s mindset this season after finishing 5th in the Western Conference in 2019. “As a club, we’re definitely an ambitious group and we’re hungry to be effective offensively and also hold it down defensively. We have our standards and goals that we want to keep in the locker room, but the vibe that everyone has together is a good feeling all around and we’re looking forward to getting started this weekend,” Ugo said.