Okoli reflects on his 2016 season

Scoring arguably the club’s most memorable goal in its inaugural home opener was quite the introduction for Sean “Ugo” Okoli.

At the time – and even today – it feels surreal that Okoli produced an 18-yard scissor kick strike with FC Cincinnati’s first shot on target in Nippert Stadium. But in retrospect, the moment perfectly encapsulates FCC’s growth as a club.

The team that started at a legal pad on a kitchen tabletop is now a club competing in its second MLS season. It only took five years.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement, but so was Okoli’s 2016 season with Cincinnati.

After two years on the fringes of MLS clubs, he signed with the Orange and Blue because of their coaches (John Harkes and Ryan Martin), the club’s vision and, most importantly, he was assured playing time to show his quality.

What followed was a campaign that included 16 goals – which still stands as FCC’s single-season goal record – and the USL MVP award. (Djiby Fall and Emmanuel Ledesman also scored 16 in 2017 and 2018, respectively, with Ledesma also claiming the USL MVP honor.) 

“My first two (professional) seasons, I didn’t really get good playing time,” Okoli said in a recent phone interview. “I’m grateful for John Harkes and his staff for believing in me and giving me that run of games to get my confidence back on the field. But I also wanted to show everyone what I’m capable of. When that season happened, for me, it was like, ‘That’s just a taste of what I can do.’”

It’s worth noting how Cincinnati’s inaugural season began.

Awaiting their first-ever game at the Charleston Battery, there was an hour-long lightning delay that delayed kickoff. Once the match started, FCC looked second best and ultimately lost, 1-0, after conceding a goal in the 94th minute.

In the second game, Andrew Wiedeman scored the club’s first goal before Okoli scored the game-winner in the 35th minute to beat Bethlehem Steel, 2-1. That ball now sits on display in the Mercy Health Training Center lobby.

Everyone remembers what happened next.

Five minutes into FC Cincinnati’s inaugural home opener, Okoli produced a stunning scissor kick goal before 14,658 fans in a 2-1 win over the Charlotte Independence. (Note: An encore presentation of this match will air Saturday – tomorrow – at noon when Star64 and fccincinnati.com re-broadcasts the game within the Star64 viewing area.)

“Getting that first one at home, I thought it was important,” Okoli said. “That moment of scoring that second goal of the season at home in Cincy, I thought it was a big moment for me. The first few seasons of my pro career hadn’t really been going the way I expected them to in terms of playing time. Getting a goal like that just really boosted my confidence, but also let the fans know and show them what I’m all about. It was a great moment for everyone.”

The win jumpstarted FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season, which concluded with the club finishing third in the USL Eastern Conference standings. During the ensuing offseason, Okoli left the club and signed with New York City FC in MLS. It was a fitting moving for the USL MVP – and one no one can blame him for. But it’d be interesting to see how his career would’ve continued in Cincinnati.

What’s often remembered most from 2016 was the home opener, the big crowds and hosting English Premier League side Crystal Palace FC in a sold-out summer friendly.

What’s forgotten, though, was the talent and potential that squad had. Truthfully, it was never really highlighted until Corben Bone and Jimmy McLaughlin joined the club for the inaugural MLS season in 2019. What could’ve been for Okoli or Harrison Delbridge, who’s now in Australia’s A-League.

As for Ugo, he’s back in USL after a season with NYCFC and then stints with clubs in Europe. He plays for Orange County SC now, and started in the club’s 2020 season opener before the global pandemic put the campaign on pause.

“I’m in a good place,” he said with a comfort in his voice. “I’m focused on where I’m at right now with Orange County and living in the moment, trying to get the most out of every day.”

He wants everyone to know he’s built on that 2016 campaign. His performance levels aren’t stuck in time. Instead, they’re more refined and polished now.

“Since I left Cincy, I’ve been in some good environments and some tough environments where I could grow as a player and person,” the 27-year-old striker said. “I feel like that’s all coming together to help me improve.”

FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season – and the ensuing rise that followed – have been remarkable to witness firsthand. For Okoli, who was integral to the 2016 campaign but then moved on, he said he’s it’s been amazing watching the club’s growth.

“It’s kind of crazy,” he said. “You wouldn’t have been able to predict something like that. The fans have always been pushing to be at the highest level, which they deserve. In football, anything can happen.

“I remember being in that first lightning delay game and it was tough for everybody. But to see where it’s at now, I feel like it’s a great thing to see. I’m very happy for the club and for the fans because they deserve the best.”