Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati
If you’re looking for the prototypical striker mentality, look no further than FC Cincinnati’s Sean Okoli.
“My main focus is to score goals, and I got 16 last year,” Okoli said. “I really think I can get 30, and I want to keep going. I was kind of disappointed because I think I could have scored at least 25 this year.”
Okoli’s 16 regular-season goals were enough to win the USL Golden Boot, and he has added another impressive accolade to his star-studded season as he was named the 2016 USL Most Valuable Player.
“It was a very fun season for me, especially coming from where I was the last two years,” Okoli said. “I wasn’t getting much playing time, and to have the situation at Cincinnati, playing in front of all the fans and playing attacking soccer, I couldn’t ask for more.”
Okoli is still just 23 years old, but his early-20s included a lighter role with Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders FC in 2014 and the New England Revolution in 2015. He evaluated the stage of his career, and expansion Cincinnati turned into a perfect fit.
“One thing for a young player is getting into good environments to train hard and train with good players, but at the same time you need game time, getting into a routine and being game sharp,” Okoli said. “As a young player, it was something I needed. After New England, I could have gone to another MLS club, where it could have been the same thing. So I took a step back to look at what’s best for me right now.”
Okoli made quite the impression early on, with perhaps the most significant moment being his and FCC’s first home goal of the season, a memorable scissor-kick tally during the team’s 2-1 win against the Charlotte Independence on April 9 that gave Okoli some ESPN acclaim, as well.
“It set the tone, and I was able to show everyone that I’m here to score goals,” Okoli said. “Plus it was a Cincinnati win. We wanted to play attacking soccer and be a powerhouse, even in our first year. That affected the people in Cincinnati, and I’m happy that [the goal] was a positive and that we got the win that day.”
While Okoli referenced the fact he could have posted a USL-record level of goals this season, he isn’t off base saying so considering he also led the league in shots (85) and shots on goal (43) during the regular season. For a first-year side, the production was a welcome sight, but he knew the end results would take some doing.
“We knew it wouldn’t be an easy start to the season,” Okoli said. “It was my first year of consistent game time, and I got back to doing the things I used to do, performing with the right habits, and I knew the goals would come.”
With National Soccer Hall of Famer and FCC Head Coach John Harkes leading the charge, he gave Okoli every opportunity to demonstrate the attacking prowess the Washington native was longing for over the past two years.
“Me and John, we have a good relationship, and the one thing he stressed to me is to get back to how I play, giving me freedom up front,” Okoli said. “I haven’t had that. Throughout the season he’d give me tips on playing high, in and around the goal – he taught me a lot of things.”
Okoli was quite balanced both at home and on the road. He had an even split with eight road goals and eight home tallies. He had only a slight edge with 44 shots at home versus 41 on the road.
From a results standpoint, the numbers showed a player who produced within any element thrown his way, but ultimately for Okoli and the rest of the FCC roster, competing at Nippert Stadium throughout the year was a one-of-a-kind experience.
“They bring it every single home game,” Okoli said. “You’ve gotta respect that. I remember the celebration right in front of The Bailey, after my second finish against Montreal, I was standing with my arms out and enjoying it. It’s something I knew the fans would like.”
From the goal-scoring, to the walkouts and beyond, Okoli was enthralled with the setting in Cincinnati.
“Just seeing all of the fans in blue and orange, I can’t even describe it,” Okoli said. “The first two games I walked out, I was like, ‘Wow. This is an MLS match.’ Obviously the crowds got even better. It’s hard to not be able to play in front of that type of crowd.
“The atmosphere Cincinnati built is breathtaking.”
Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati