By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, March 18, 2016
There’s an expression that some people just live and breathe soccer.
If that’s the case, count Pittsburgh Riverhounds midfielder Stephen Okai among them.
After all, when he’s not training or playing for the ‘Hounds at Highmark Stadium, you’ll usually find him on a practice field, or watching the game he loves.
“The Riverhounds have a really great academy here, so I love using the time God has blessed me with sharing with the players they have in the academy teams,” Okai said recently. “I’m always coaching the little kids, being around them to encourage them, and help them step up their game. I love being around those kids, helping them and coaching them all the time.”
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Okai has made 73 regular-season appearances in the USL over the past three years, including 23 last season for the Riverhounds as he joined the club from Orange County Blues FC. The holding midfielder was a key cog in a Riverhounds midfield that propelled the club to the 2015 USL Playoffs, as he lent shape to the side defensively to allow players like returning standouts Kevin Kerr and Lebo Moloto the opportunity to provide attacking flair.
Among the biggest reasons for Okai’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the presence of Coach Mark Steffens, with whom he began his professional career in 2013 with the Charlotte Eagles. The two have developed a kinship both through their strong Christianity, and also the manner in which Steffens has helped Okai dig deeper into his potential.
“As a player you want to play where you feel comfortable playing, and with a coach that appreciates your style of play, and is going to let you do what you can do,” Okai said. “Playing for Mark Steffens in 2013, I realized that this guy would let me do what I want to do on the field, and at the same time he’s going to teach me what I need to do to step up my game.”
Okai’s potential has been on display since he arrived from Ghana in 2009 to attend NAIA school the University of Mobile. While there, he also played for the PDL’s Des Moines Menace and Reading United AC. The partnership between Reading and the Philadelphia Union put Okai regularly in front of Philadelphia’s coaches, and it was the Union that selected him at the 2013 MLS SuperDraft with the 31st overall pick.
While Okai didn’t earn a professional deal in Philadelphia, he appreciated all he had learned and quickly put it to good use with the Eagles. As a rookie, Okai made 24 appearances and recorded four goals as he helped the club to a surprise run to the USL Championship.
After helping the Riverhounds return to the playoffs last season, Okai has aspirations to emulate the Eagles with his current club. That bid will begin on April 2, when the Riverhounds welcome the defending USL champion Rochester Rhinos to Highmark Stadium for their opening game of the season.
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“I’m really looking forward to it, and am happy and grateful to kick off the season,” Okai said. “For everything to go well for us as a team, we really need to put a stamp on that game, so I think it’s a really crucial game for us as a team, and as a whole organization, so we’re not going to take it lightly. We’re going to go in and try to get the three points, and make our fans happy as well. We are really looking forward to that game.”
As the Riverhounds’ old and new faces come together, Okai is ready to pour everything he has into pushing the team to a new level.“[I want] us to play a great season, and to move three steps ahead of last season to get a home advantage in the playoffs as well,” Okai said. “I think we are working toward that … the new guys that came in and the old guys are really blending in well, so I think things are going to change this year, and hopefully we’re going to get to where we want to be.”