Watching from the stands, or even along with the Sounders as an academy player, proved little preparation for Sean Okoli ahead of his MLS debut.
But here came the 21-year-old from Federal Way as a second-half substitute in Saturday’s season opener, a slugfest in the pouring rain against reigning champion Sporting Kansas City at CenturyLink Field.
The instructions from the coaches were simple: Use your speed to try to get behind the defense.
Okoli did that and more by playing a key part in the buildup to a thrilling last-minute goal. It was his cross from the right flank that after a wild sequence in front of Kansas City’s goal — what Okoli called a “mosh pit” — fell to the feet of Chad Barrett, who sealed the 1-0 win.
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“I swear I blacked out when it happened,” said Okoli, a homegrown player out of the youth development academy. “It was a great feeling, seeing the fans going nuts like that and to have us walk out with three points.”
A great feeling and a great start to his pro career.
Sounders captain Brad Evans knew precisely what Okoli was feeling before entering the game in the 86th minute.
“No matter what you tell yourself, when you come into an MLS game, it’s that first breath — it’s difficult,” Evans said. “But I thought he made an impact. He knows the game. He’s athletic. He’s fast. He definitely has got a bright future.”
Not much might have been expected from Okoli when his signing was announced, but coach Sigi Schmid said he saw steady improvement in preseason, especially as the local product adjusted to being a wide midfielder instead of a forward, where he played at Wake Forest.
Youth and inexperience, though, weren’t going to count against him.
“You’re not old or young,” Schmid said. “You’re either a good player or a bad player.”
When Okoli subbed for Lamar Neagle, who is also from Federal Way, chants of “2-5-3!” were audible from the crowd. So which south Sounder was it for?
“They were all for him,” Neagle said afterward.
• The Sounders announced before the game the team has bought out the contract of Shalrie Joseph, a veteran midfielder who hadn’t been with the team since the start of preseason.
The move was expected and continues a trend of notable contract buyouts at the start of the season: Christian Tiffert in 2013, O’Brian White in 2012 and Blaise Nkufo in 2011.
• Seattle defender Dylan Remick made his first MLS start in place of Leo Gonzalez, who is in the final stages of recovery from offseason groin surgery.
“Walking out there before the national anthem is something I’ll never forget,” Remick said. “It was pretty special. My parents were here, too, so that was pretty cool for them to see.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184