At just 25 years old, Amobi Okugo of the Portland Timbers has lived in more places than most people have even visited. Now, heading into his 7th year in Major League Soccer, Amobi sits down with Bear Mattress to discuss everything from his family's Nigerian heritage, to his journeyman career, and how his personality has helped him adapt to the constant change he’s experienced as a professional athlete.
Bear Mattress: Your parents are Nigerian immigrants who moved to the U.S. before you were born, can you tell us a bit about their experience coming to the States?
AO: Yes, so both of my parents are Nigerian. My father first came to the States in the 1970s to pursue higher education opportunities. He was here first and then he met my Mother back in Nigeria. They were married, and then she came to the States in the 1980s. So, they’ve been here for over 30 years now.
Bear Mattress: You were born outside of Sacramento in Hayward, CA. How did your parents end up outside of Sacramento of all places?
AO: So my father works for the EDD (Employment Development Department) - actually both of my parents do. The EDD is headquartered in Sacramento, so that’s how they settled there initially.
Bear Mattress: Have you ever been to Nigeria with your parents to visit?
AO: (laughs) Haha actually it's funny you ask that because I'm actually going today for the first time.
Bear Mattress: Wait...for the first time ever? Today?
AO: Yes, today (laughs)...So I’ll fly from San Francisco to London and then from there to Lagos, Nigeria which is the Capital and biggest city. We’ll spend a few days there and then travel around for about 10 days and see the villages that my parents are from. My cousin is getting married so we will go to that and get to spend time with some close family which will be good. Then I’ll head home and begin training for next season.
Bear Mattress: So you’ve lived a ton of places, but it seems like Sacramento is your hometown. As someone who has never been there, what can you tell us about the city?
AO: Yeah, Sacramento is a nice city and it definitely feels like home. It’s big but kinda has the feel of a smaller town. The people there are all really friendly, there’s a good food scene that’s growing, so yeah it’s a cool place.
NATIONAL TEAM SUCCESS
Bear Mattress: Growing up, you played with a bunch of the U.S. Youth National Teams and ended up moving to Florida to train full-time with the team. Can you describe that experience?
AO: Yeah so growing up in high school I played for the ODP (Olympic Development Program) regional team in Sacramento. I was at a tournament and a few of the Youth National Team scouts saw me. From there, I moved to the National Team Residency Program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida for part of my Sophomore and Junior year.
Bear Mattress: Was it difficult moving all the way across the country at such a young age and being away from your family for months at a time? How did your parents feel about it?
AO: Yeah you know at first my Mother didn’t want me to go but it was also clear that it was a great opportunity. You know, getting a chance to represent your country can be a once in a lifetime experience, so I didn’t want to pass it up.
Bear Mattress: So I see on Twitter that you’re friendly with a lot of other MLS/National Team players. Did you become friends with most of them during your time in Florida?
AO: Yeah, definitely. I was there for two years and that’s where I met a bunch of guys who I’m still friends with today - guys like Kofi Sarkodie, Jack McInerney, and others.
Bear Mattress: Can you tell us about training with the National Team while in Residency and what your daily schedule looked like?
AO: Yeah, we we’re basically training like professionals every day. We would wake up and have weight training around 6am. From there, you would go to breakfast then have a few hours of training on the field. After lunch you would be in school for the afternoon and then have the choice to go back on the field. It was a ton of work but we all loved it, honestly.
COLLEGE AND PRO CAREER
Bear Mattress: You played one year of college soccer at UCLA before turning pro and were named Pac-10 Freshman on the year. Where did UCLA first see you play? Were there other school in contention that you were considering?
AO: Yeah so UCLA first spotted me at the Nike Friendlies which is an international tournament. That year we were playing youth teams from Brazil, Portugal and a pro team from Dallas. I decided on UCLA but was also considering Santa Clara, Stanford, and Cal Berkeley.
Bear Mattress: Since being drafted by Philly in 2010, you’ve been a bit of a journeyman and have played for a bunch of teams in different cities (Seattle, Orlando, Sporting KC, and Portland to name a few). What has that experience been like for you? Has it been difficult adapting to so many moves?
AO: I think my first five years in Philly where huge for me. That’s really where I grew up both on and off the field. Since signing with Orlando in 2015 when my contract with Philly was up, I’ve pretty much joined a new team every 6 months. It’s honestly been great though. I’ve gotten the chance to meet new friends in each place who I know I will have for a long time. I think the goal of any soccer player is to play well and have as long of a career as possible, so for me, as long as I’m playing, I’m happy.
Bear Mattress: So you don’t have any trouble getting to know people when you’re in a new environment and unsure of how long you will be there? Personally, I suck at that.
AO: Ha honestly, I think that it’s one of my strong suits - meeting new people.
Bear Mattress: Can you tell us about some of the highlights you’ve had on the field as a professional athletes?
AO: Yeah I’ll never forget things like my first professional game in Seattle and hearing the National Anthem there. The way the fans do it there is crazy. Also, playing in the first ever franchise game for the Orlando City SC was something I’ll never forget. I’ve had a bunch of great moments to choose from.
Bear Mattress: Do you have a favorite place that you’ve travelled to as a professional athlete?
AO: Yeah when I was younger, we went to France once for a tournament. It was right when that book was coming out... You know the one with the movie with Tom Hanks?
Bear Mattress: Umm...The Davinci Code?
AO: Yeah! (laughs) The Davinci Code. So that movie had just come out and we got to go the The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, and saw all these different cool places. I would love to get back there sometime soon but it’s hard to take the time off when we’re in-season.
Bear Mattress: We know that you have a good relationship with fellow Team Bear member Jeff Rizzo? How do you two know each other?
AO: Oh yeah, Jeff has been one of my closest friends since we were kids. Growing up in Sacramento we played on different club teams until our parents all decided to merge teams into one when we were around 12. When I went away for Residency, he was always checking in on me and seeing how I was doing. He’s one of those people who never seems to have a bad day and it’s great to see how success he’s become with RIZKNOWS. A lot of people questioned his decision to start his company, so I’m very happy for him.
TRAINING, LIFESTYLE & 2017 GOALS
Bear Mattress: Can you describe your day-to-day when you’re in-season vs. in the off-season from a training standpoint?
AO: Yeah, so when we’re in-season with games and everything there is a lot of maintenance of our bodies. In the offseason I love to cross-train with as many fun activities as possible. I’ll do things like 9-round boxing, pickup basketball, pickup soccer, and different activities with my girlfriend. As the season approaches the coaching staff makes sure that we’re ramping up properly and getting our bodies ready. We will have training sessions and even full days to things like speed & agility, tactics, and fitness/endurance tests (when they want to just kill us). As the actual games approach it’s a lot more small-sided games and scrimmages.
Bear Mattress: Do they have a nutritionist on staff that you work with?
AO: Yeah we have nutritionists who decide what we should be eating, medical doctors who administer tests on us to see where our bodies are at and that sort of thing. As a pro, I feel like you should always be motivated to do that sort of stuff yourself, but I think that more and more teams are understanding how important recovery and nutrition have become to competing at a high level and building a top tier professional athlete.
Bear Mattress: Can you tell us about and personal goals or team goals you may have for the upcoming season?
AO: Yeah for the team, first and foremost, it will be to get back into the playoffs. We didn’t defend our MLS cup trophy last year, so our goal is to put ourselves in a position to win it back. Once you’re in the playoffs anything can happen - when we won the whole thing in 2015 we got in as a third seed, so obviously you want to put yourself in that position. For me, personally, the goal is to find a place within the starting eleven - whether it be in midfield or defense.
Bear Mattress: Finally, how are you sleeping on your Bear Mattress now that you’ve had it for some time?
AO: Oh great! First off, I couldn’t believe how it came to life during the unboxing process. I took it out of the box and was thinking “how will this be a mattress” but as soon as I cut into it came to life. The whole thing was very cool. Now everyone in my family wants one which is good and bad, you know, because they are looking to me to get them (laughs).
Bear Mattress: We can definitely look into getting you some sort of family discount!
AO: That would be great! (laughs)