By Don Ruiz The News Tribune
Work that started on the playgrounds of Federal Way is paying off in Charleston, S.C., this month as homegrown player Sean Okoli has begun making his mark with the Seattle Sounders.
On Saturday, Okoli made a run through the penalty area that drew the game-winning penalty kick in Seattle’s 2-1 win over the Charleston Battery in the opening round of the Carolina Challenge Cup. The next day, Okoli scored a goal of his own as a team composed mostly of Sounders reserves routed the College of Charleston, 5-0.
Those first accomplishments on the professional level mark progress in a soccer career that began in the youth leagues of South King County.
“It was a recreational league in Federal Way — I don’t even know what it was called,” said Okoli, 21. “Me and a lot of my friends got involved and just started playing. I didn’t know it was going to escalate to this. … Soccer always came natural to me. It was something that I enjoyed and wanted to keep playing. Then over time, as I started getting better, I realized it could be a dream come true.”
Okoli went on to become a four-year starter at Todd Beamer High School before earning all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors at Wake Forest. In the summers between his three college seasons, he played for the Pierce County-based Sounders U-23.
“Having the 23s around was an easy option for me,” he said. “I got in with the first team and there were a lot of good games, and I was just excited to be a part of that.”
Okoli also became the first member of the Sounders Academy to play for Seattle’s MLS Reserve League team. On Jan. 8, he and Aaron Kovar of Seattle became the second and third homegrown players to sign with the MLS Sounders, following defender DeAndre Yedlin who blazed the trail last season.
“I want to see as many homegrowns on this team as possible,” Yedlin said. “It really shows the talent that we have here in Seattle, and the talent that’s coming I know is great.”
The league’s homegrown player designation allows clubs to sign a player to his first professional contract without him going through normal draft procedures if that player has trained for at least one year in that club’s youth-development system and meets other criteria.
Yedlin set the bar high last season, moving directly into the starting lineup and following that early this year with his first appearance with the United States national team.
“(Yedlin’s success) just got me more excited to get started,” Okoli said. “I know DeAndre did it his way. But I’m looking forward to doing it my way.”
The Sounders don’t expect Yedlin’s immediate breakthrough to be duplicated by either forward/midfielder Okoli nor midfielder Kovar, a 20-year-old who played two seasons at Stanford and one season with Sounders U-23. However, their experience has reminded them to be open to surprises.
“Sitting here at this point last year with DeAndre, I’d probably say we felt he’d be a solid backup right back,” assistant coach and scout Kurt Schmid said last month. “Then he knocked our socks off. I hope the same for both of those guys; but we’re not expecting either one of them to come in and start 34 games for us.”