MARIETTA, Ga. — About a year ago, Patrick Okonkwo did not want to go to Charleston, S.C.
Atlanta United had made the decision to loan the homegrown talent, and teammate Gordon Wild, to the Charleston Battery of the USL Championship for the entire 2018 season. Okonkwo knew if he worked hard, he’d get chances to play and develop there, but still, he didn’t want to go. He’d be the only Atlanta United homegrown not training with the team.
Alas, he had no choice in the matter, so the native of Nigeria did one of the things he knows how to do very well: He put his head down, went to work and played soccer.
In hindsight, Okonkwo is grateful for the experience. He scored seven goals and assisted on another in 26 appearances with the club, helped the Battery qualify for the playoffs and made strides in his own game. But for Okonkwo, the 2018 season was much more about growing as a person than as a player.
“I had to grow up,” Okonkwo said. “I dealt with it well and got the result that I wanted… It was a good opportunity. To be honest, I didn’t want to leave (Atlanta), but when the call came, I went. I worked hard and took chances.
“For probably half of the season, it was difficult, but then I started to pick it up.”
Okonkwo, who turns 21 on April 23, won’t be going far from Atlanta United this season. The club announced earlier this month that they were loaning him to its own USL Championship affiliate, ATL UTD 2, which plays its home games less than 11 miles from the training grounds of the Major League Soccer Cup champs.
In a recent interview Okonkwo gave to Pro Soccer USA, he used the word “blessed” often. Coming from others, the word can be tossed around like a cliché at times, but from Okonkwo, it’s genuine.
For a young man who lost his father at a young age, who moved from Nigeria, to Jamaica, and then to Suwanee, Georgia after a family adopted him and his brother, everything good that comes his way is a gift and every obstacle is a chance to improve.
He views the loan to ATL UTD 2 as both.
“I’m blessed to be back home with my family, amazing teammates, coaching staff. It’s an opportunity for me to use those tools that I have right now to be a better player,” Okonkwo said. “Atlanta is the right place for me right now. I’m blessed that they kept me and didn’t send me away, so I’m just going to work, keep my head up and keep going.”
Okonkwo has already impressed with the 2’s in a preseason game this year. Against the Chattanooga Red Wolves, a USL League One expansion side, he bulldozed his way into the box to strike a shot into the lower left corner of the net in the 55th minute.
For much of his budding career, Okonkwo has always had a nose for the goal. At the youth level, he scored 26 goals in 29 appearances for Atlanta United’s U-18 team in the 2016-17 season. The year before, playing for Georgia United, he found the back of the net 22 times in 30 appearances.
Homegrown connection strong 💪🍑 pic.twitter.com/dbLhNXvwda
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) January 28, 2019
“Since I’ve started training with (ATL UTD 2 coach Stephen Glass), it’s been good so far,” Okonkwo said. “I’ve mostly been up top or out wide, but it’s whatever the coach’s decision is and I’ll just go with it, wherever he puts me.”
Okonkwo has many memories playing with the Charleston Battery. Overall, USL has been good to him. Before Atlanta United began play, it sent a few of its academy players — including Okonkwo and Andrew Carleton — to Charleston on July 5, 2016. In that game, a friendly against Scottish Premier League side Rangers FC, Okonkwo made his professional debut as a second half sub.
On June 17, 2017, Atlanta United signed Okonkwo, George Bello and Lagos Kunga to homegrown deals, the third, fourth and fifth players of such for the club. Okonkwo was again briefly sent to Charleston, playing a total of 35 minutes across three contests that season.
Last year is where he really made his strides with the club. He often featured as a lone striker, but occasionally played out wide on the wings, or as an attacking midfielder. He scored his first professional goal in a Battery kit in a U.S. Open Cup game against South Georgia Tormenta F.C., now a USL League One side. Okonkwo chased down a cross from Victor Mansaray, ducked his head and sprinted into the ball, putting it past Tormenta’s keeper.
After the Battery’s season came to a close, Okonkwo returned to Atlanta United’s training grounds in Marietta, Georgia. As the first team made their run to the MLS Cup title game, Okonkwo was there for the ride. After the team lifted the cup, he, Bello, Kunga and Chris Goslin were in the locker room and on the field celebrating in suits and ties. They had fun in the parade, too.
Although he didn’t play in the game, Okonkwo said he’ll never forget it.
“Being in an environment like that… I never had a championship before,” Okonkwo said. “During my young age in Jamaica, I had played in a championship, but never won it, you know? Being there with those guys who worked their asses off all season, it was just a blessing to be around them. The work they put in all season paid off. To celebrate a moment like that, I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
This is what it means to Atlanta 🙌
Homegrowns lead the ATL chant pic.twitter.com/HFBV1L0zyn
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 9, 2018
Watching his teammates celebrate now serves as an image Okonkwo can work towards. Out of the five homegrowns, he’s the only one that hasn’t featured in a matchday 18-man roster for the Five Stripes in any contest.
Now that he’s back home, his support system is close by. Okonkwo often seeks advice from Darlington Nagbe, Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, but his go-to for words of encouragement is Tony Annan, Atlanta United’s academy director, who used to run Georgia United, where Okonkwo got his start.
And Okonkwo also has his closest friends nearby, the other homegrowns. He, Carleton, Goslin, Kunga and Bello all live in the same apartment building. To say the five are close would be an understatement.
“We all played with Georgia United before Atlanta United. We know each other’s parents. We hang out outside of soccer,” Okonkwo said. “It’s pretty good to have that connection. It’s a good feeling to have them around.”
This season, since he’s playing close to home, Okonkwo will get the chance to hang out more with his buddies. If one of them is looking for a whuppin’ in FIFA, Okonkwo says they can call him.
“I’m trash at Fortnite,” Okonkwo says honestly, with a laugh. “But FIFA, I can play FIFA. I would say I’m the best at FIFA.”
The new season for Atlanta United also came with a new coach as Frank de Boer took the reins from Gerardo “Tata” Martino. If de Boer has plans for Okonkwo, he isn’t sure what they are as the 6-foot-1 forward has had limited interactions with the Dutch manager.
“He’s a straightforward guy. I haven’t really had the chance to have a one-on-one conversation with him,” Okonkwo said. “Most of the time it’s just on the pitch, him telling me what to do.”
As the 2019 season gets underway, really Okonkwo’s second full one as a professional, he isn’t worried about when his call for the first team is going to come. For now, he’s all in on ATL UTD 2 and making the most out of every step he takes on the pitch.
“I’m hoping to work really hard and do exactly what coach asks me to do. If there’s an opportunity with the first team, I’ll be able to step up my game,” Okonkwo said. “I’m grateful to be here. Whenever the opportunity comes, it comes.
“I’m just going to take it one step at a time and hopefully, I’ll get my chance.”