Most MLS strikers bring a special quality that sets them apart from their teammates. Whether it be an innate understanding of what run to make, blazing speed, strong hold-up play, or clinical finishing, the best front-runners in the league possess a unique skill that coaches and fans alike can’t resist.
Yet, for Sean Okoli of the New England Revolution there isn’t an eye-grabbing quality. Instead, there is a conglomeration of intangibles, skills, and physical talents that have made him a serviceable option off the bench for the Revs.
That unique combination was in full effect when Okoli entered a recent 1-1 draw with D.C. United in the 90th minute as a substitute. With his team down to nine men, the 22-year-old dribbled along the end line, muscled off a Kofi Opare challenge, and won a corner kick with a clever deflection.
For the Federal Way, Washington native, it was merely him doing what the game required and whatever was necessary to help his team grind out a result when the odds were not in their favor.
"Especially when the defenders are doing a great job pressuring and defending, my job is just to go up there and try and it hold it up, relieve some pressure," Okoli said. "And I was able to win a corner too that gave us a big break."
It is a play like that that caused head coach Jay Heaps to praise Okoli with descriptors such as "power", "strength", and "speed" following that match. However, the journey towards that bit of admiration has not always been so simple or straightforward.
After spending time in the Seattle Sounders youth academy as a teenager, Okoli ventured nearly all the way across the country to become a Demon Deacon at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He encountered resounding success while there, as goals and assists came in bunches, just as various All-ACC accolades did following his freshman, sophomore, and junior seasons.
With a highly commendable college pedigree amassed, Okoli was offered a Homegrown Player contract by the Sounders and happily accepted it. However, his first and only season with Seattle was stained with mixed results.
He scored in Open Cup play, but only made three appearances off the bench in MLS play for a grand total of 19 minutes. Preventing him from seeing the field was the dynamic partnership between Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, but rather than growing frustrated, Okoli turned his logjam scenario into a learning process.
"It was great playing with them and I learned a lot, especially coming out of college," he said. "My first year there was a good learning experience, but I think being here [in New England] I’ve taken what I learned in Seattle and taken the positives and continued to keep pushing forward."
Now fully settled in New England, Okoli is showing not just how valuable his time in Seattle was from a learning perspective, but also how much the Revs are providing a platform for his career to take steps forward.
In substitute appearances against the Seattle Sounders, the Colorado Rapids, the San Jose Earthquakes, and D.C., Okoli has shown a willingness to take defenders on and an audacity that justifies his time on the field.
As the summer stretch nears - a time in which the Open Cup and Gold Cup will complicate matters - it would be entirely reasonable to see more of the the 6-foot-1-inch striker. Regardless of whether that takes the form of a start or reserve minutes, Okoli will be prepared.
"We’ll see if minutes come by, but if not I know there are going to be opportunities coming in the summer," he said. "I’ve just got to be ready."
As his quartet of substitute appearances have already shown, Okoli is primed to make the most of his chances when they arise. For him it’s all about staking his claim each time he steps on the field and helping out the team in whatever way he can.
In doing just that, Okoli has found a new home in New England and has his sights set on growing as a player and meeting his goals.
"I’m realizing that it’s a long process to get where I really want to get to, but I think I’ve made good strides so far this year," Okoli said. "I know the team and the coaches are helping me do that, so I’ve just got to keep going every day and see the progress coming from all that."