Just a few short years ago, DeAndre Yedlin, Sean Okoli and Aaron Kovar were teammates in Washington Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program (now Elite Player Development). In March, they will step onto the field as teammates again … at CenturyLink Field, wearing the Rave Green of Seattle Sounders FC.
Okoli and Kovar were signed in January by the Sounders as Homegrown Players, the same designation given to Yedlin the year before. The Homegrown Player Rule allows Major League Soccer teams to sign players from their own development academies directly to their first-team rosters, as opposed to being subject to the usual MLS allocation process whereby players are assigned to teams by the league, or placed into the MLS SuperDraft.
Like Yedlin before them, both Okoli and Kovar are alumni of the Sounders FC Academy program, and have already had illustrious careers at the prep, Washington Youth Soccer and college levels
Okoli, a native of Federal Way, played for Todd Beamer High School and numerous local club teams, as well as Washington Youth Soccer ODP and U.S. Youth National teams. The forward finished his youth career at the Sounders FC Academy before moving on to Wake Forest University, where he scored 24 goals in three seasons. He says the chance to suit up for his hometown team is a dream come true.
“Growing up you always dream of being a pro, no matter where you’re at,” he says. “Once I got closer to going to college I realized it was a more realistic goal for me and I just made sure I pushed myself harder every day and train no matter where I was. I was blessed to be given the opportunity to play professionally, so I’m just happy.”
Kovar, a Garfield High School alum, was equally outstanding as a prep, being named Gatorade Washington State Player of the Year in 2011 and competing for the Sounders FC Academy, the Sounders U-23s and the U.S. U-18 National Team. A midfielder, Kovar spent the last two seasons at Stanford, where he was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2012.
Kovar chuckles when asked about his memories of playing with Okoli and Yedlin on Washington Youth Soccer’s ODP squads.
“I was by far the worst of the three,” Kovar says. “ I wasn’t the greatest player at that age and Sean and DeAndre would get National Team call-ups every year and it was a little hard to watch at times. But they’re two of my really good friends and it’s been awesome watching them. Sean’s done really well at Wake Forest and it’s really fun to be here in the same spot with him because we’ve known each other forever, with DeAndre. “
Both players say that their experiences in both ODP and Washington Youth Soccer State Cup competition had a profound impact on where they are today.
“Those trips with the [ODP] State Team were great!” Okoli says. “I got some good looks with the National Team because I was with ODP all the time and that was just a good experience for me. I created friendships with DeAndre (Yedlin) and Aaron (Kovar) and a bunch of other teammates, and got better by pushing each other every day. We never knew we were going to end up being where we are now. We just went out and played every day. So, we were all just blessed and it was a good opportunity.”
Interestingly, for all of their success, both players note that it wasn’t as if they were simply blessed with natural talent and had everything handed to them from day one. In Okoli’s U12 season, his first with Federal Way Storm, he was placed on the “B” team, and had to work his way onto the “A” team by his U13 season. Okoli eventually won a State Championship earned the chance to compete in the US Youth Soccer Region IV Championships with Washington Premier FC. Likewise, while noting previously that he wasn’t as naturally talented as fellow ODP players like Okoli and Yedlin, Kovar — whose teams never made it past the group stage at the State Championships — says that he had to make up for that difference by working harder than anyone else.
Both players credit their youth coaches for believing in them, and challenging them to work harder to make the most of their ability.
“Everyone that coached me, I kind of feel like I carried something with me when I moved forward and still use today,” Okoli says. “Whether it was Rocky down with the Storm, Jimmy McAlister and Gary Heel with Washington Premier, Dick McCormick with the Sounders, I just tried to pick up as much as I could. They were always trying to teach us so I just tried to listen and add something to my game.”
Kovar credits former Washington Youth Soccer Director of Youth Development, and current Sounders FC Director of Youth Development Darren Sawatzky for showing him that hard work and studying could make up for any shortcomings at that age.
“[While playing with Washington Youth Soccer ODP] Darren Sawatzky instilled this idea that if you work hard enough and are smart enough at something, you will make progress,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Darren, really. He gave me this blue collar mentality and…that’s what has pushed me forward.”
Kovar recognizes that his story — a rec soccer kid who wasn’t the fastest, or the most skilled, but worked harder than anyone else in pursuit of his dream — can be an inspiration to others.
“The biggest thing I would tell any kid, no matter the size or skill that they are now, is that things can change really quickly,” he says. “I remember kids who were incredible players but just never worked at it, and now they’re not playing anymore. If you have a passion or a dream in soccer or whatever it is in life, if you really pursue it and give everything, it is possible.”