Okai surprised, but excited at the prospect of playing in Philadelphia
When you speak with Stephen Okai, the first thing you notice is his down-to-earth, humble nature.
Philadelphia selected the 23-year-old Ghana native and Reading United alumnus with the 31st pick in last week's MLS Superdraft.
But the University of Mobile (Ala.) product says he didn't see it coming.
"On the draft day I wasn't really thinking about the draft itself," said Okai in an interview with philadelphiaunion.com. "One of my friends that I played with at Reading United, Deshorn Brown, was there and he was one of the Generation Adidas guys, so I knew he was going to be drafted in the first round. He was actually my roommate and he asked me to come by. And I was like ok, I'll come by, and sit with him and see what's going on. So it was surprising to me that I was called by Philadelphia Union. I never dreamt of coming to Philadelphia Union because nobody spoke to me and I didn't have a (pre-draft) interview with anyone from the staff."
Manager John Hackworth and the Union technical staff already knew about Okai. He played 28 times for Reading and scored five goals as a deep-lying midfielder. At Mobile, he was the 2012 NAIA Player of the Year and added 10 goals and nine assists in 23 total games for the Rams.
“Stephen is probably one of the most ready players in this draft that can step onto an MLS team and play right away,” explained Hackworth following the draft. “He’s experienced beyond his years and having a lot of personal knowledge of him, it was hard to deny that he was going to be a guy that we weren’t looking at.”
Okai was particularly fond of his days at Reading, playing for Union assistant coach Brendan Burke.
"It was great," said Okai of his Reading United experience. "It was a place where I felt like I could be seen by other professional teams. Brendan was a nice coach. He made us work hard and he created a conducive environment for us. I loved the way he spoke to us pre-game. It was definitely the right place for me to play at the PDL level. We played a friendly game against the Philadelphia Union and that's when they invited me to come play with them for a few days. I went over to train and the guys were so good, they were so nice. The way they talked to me, it made me feel at home."
Even though there was no pre-draft contact with the Union technical staff, Okai had a soft spot for PPL Park.
"I was kind of hoping it was going to happen, and luckily enough, there's no place like home," Okai added. "That's what my dream was. Everybody was sort of like, 'we'd love to see you play for Philadelphia Union since you played for Reading United'. I said, let's just see what God has for me."
On the field, Okai describes his play style as that of a typical holding midfielder. He stands five foot nine and weighs 178 pounds, a build similar to that of fellow holding mid and converted center half Amobi Okugo.
"I play defensive midfielder," said Okai of his playing style. "I'm a holding player, sort of like Michael Essien who was with Chelsea and plays for Real Madrid now. That's the kind of style I play. I'm sort of a utility guy - it doesn't really matter. I can play right back, left back, anywhere the coach needs me, I'll do what he wants me to do."
That's about all Okai will reveal about his game. His humble nature carries over into his actions on the field.
"I'm the kind of player, I don't talk much about myself," Okai explained. "All I say to people, is come to the field, come watch me play, and at the end of the day you can judge for yourself. I don't talk too much. I just want my game to talk for me."
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org